1st-2nd August 2009, Knebworth House
The grounds of Knebworth House are known as a historic music venue having played host to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Genesis and Queen in the past. This year however it was announced that Knebworth would play host to the UK leg of a new travelling European rock / metal festival, Sonisphere. Having stopped off in the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Sweden and Finland the festival arrived at it's final destination with an extended lineup, as the Knebworth leg of Sonisphere featured two days of music in comparison to just the one in the other European nations it visited. The festival also has a promising staggered staging approach, the two main stages are scheduled so that all the band on both stages can be seen by everyone with just a short walk across the main arena necessary. For me it's fantastic to have a festival at Knebworth as I live just 15 minutes away from the site and luckily enough I managed to get half price tickets to the debut of the UK's latest major festival.
Due to a lack of punctuality the first band I witness at Sonisphere 2009 is New York alternative rockers Taking Back Sunday (4/10). They're one of the quieter bands on the bill and aren't the most impressive start to the weekend. Lead singer Adam Lazzara's awful on-stage banter and annoying microphone chucking doesn't help a band that may sound quite good on record but don't really have enough about them to succeed live. Next up for me is York metalcore act Glamour Of The Kill (6/10) in the Bohemia tent. They're surprisingly good although frontman Davey Death spoils the show slightly with immature comments about girls in the crowd and by asking for "the biggest wall of death ever seen", which is a wee bit sad. Anthrax (9/10) have always been behind Metallica and Slayer in my thrash metal rankings and due to the fact their latest singer Dan Nelson left the band just two weeks ago there's a slight tension in the air before the band begin their main (Apollo) stage set, featuring the one-off return of former vocalist John Bush. I, and everyone else, need not of worried for this an awesome set. The crowd go wild for the likes of 'Caught In A Mosh' and 'I Am The Law' becomes the anthem of the weekend. The crowd is extremely thin on the ground in Bohemia for Derry's finest in Fighting With Wire (8/10). This is a shame because, despite early sound issues, Cahir O'Doherty and company are on fine form with the frontman even taking the time to perform something akin to a stand-up comedy routine in between songs. Originally the next band on my timetable was Coheed & Cambria but they've got stuck on a ferry and instead Bohemia beckons again for a set by the promising Glaswegians Twin Atlantic (7/10), a band I've followed for a while. They are akin to a slightly poppier version of Biffy Clyro and their set mainly comprises of tracks from upcoming mini-album Vivarium, with 'You're Turning Into John Wayne' being a particular highlight. They close with two tracks from their excellent debut EP 'A Guidance From Colour'. The title track sees guitarist Barry McKenna break out his cello while 'Audience and Audio' seems to impress the crowd, many of whom will leave with a new band to look out for. Next up is a trip back to the main stage for the godfathers of heavy metal in Heaven & Hell (8/10). Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Vinny Appice are better known collectively of course as Black Sabbath but due to various legal issues related to 'Paranoid' (d'you get it?) ex-singer Ozzy Osbourne the band are not able to use that legendary name. The set may lull slightly in the middle but the quality of what is being played is undeniable and the riffs to classics such as 'The Mob Rules' and 'The Time Machine' are still as powerful today as they ever were. Dio's voice is also still in fine fettle, especially on new song 'Bible Black' and closer 'Heaven & Hell'. I also have Mr. Dio to thank for my free Saturday ticket, although that has in no way affected the review! A final trip to Bohemia for the day brings the reward of, in my opinion, one of the world's greatest and most underrated of bands in Mancunian art rock collective Oceansize (10/10). They only have half an hour to play but they make the most of it. Everyone in the room is surely struck by how tight they are as a band as well as the power and genius of their music. Frontman Mike Vennart seems to be having a great time, thanking Sonisphere organisers for "having the balls" to book them and thanking Michael Jackson as his death and therefore cancellation of his O2 Arena gigs has apparently allowed them their "first choice of sound engineer". Closer 'One Out Of None' is especially good and ends with Vennart trying to destroy the mic stand while guitarist Steve Durose tries to get out of the way!
Because I used to love them (didn't everyone at some point?) and because the friend I'm with still does love them I head from Bohemia to the main stage to see headliners Linkin Park (3/10). Sadly their set is a major disappointment. It could be that they are just having a bad night, I hope for their sake that this is the reason for their lifeless set. They have some immense songs but there is no energy in the performance to speak of. The band looks bored of their most famous anthems such as 'Numb' and 'What I've Done'. The only band member who looks even vaguely into it is MC/guitarist/keyboardist Mike Shinoda. His brief acapella version of politically charged 'Hands Held High' is the highlight of the set...and it's only a minute and a half long! The crowd is pretty static as well although there are enough Linkin Park fanboys and fangirls in the audience to make the gig at least appear to be going well. The encore begins with a short set from singer Chester Bennington's new band Dead By Sunrise (1/10). This does not go particularly well, mainly because the songs are dreadful. They gain a mark out of ten purely for the fact that I quite like their name and because I feel sorry for them. Linkin Park then return for a short encore, including new single 'New Divide' which is one of the best songs they play, because they don't look bored out of their minds with it yet. The set ends early and I think the band know they've not lived up to expectations. A shame and I wish I'd stayed in Bohemia for Rolo Tomassi and Fucked Up instead.
The Saturday ends there as Bohemia is expected to be packed for Thunder's last ever show and a following set from The Wildhearts...and I need to save my energy for the next day!
I'm there bright and early on Sunday morning, well before midday at any rate, in order to catch my gothic doom metallers of choice on the second (Saturn) stage, Halifax's Paradise Lost (7/10). They are a decidedly acquired taste and a good deal of the crowd are not convinced but for those in the know or who enjoy the quartet's style of music the set is enjoyable, even though it could do with true classics like 'Embers Fire' and 'True Belief'. Their half hour set is followed on the main stage by veteran industrial rockers Killing Joke (5/10). While Jaz Coleman and co do their best they don't quite manage to succeed in winning over the crowd. They may well sound better in different surroundings but for me and, I think, the majority of the onlookers, they do not fit at Sonisphere. They are followed at the other end of the arena by even more veteran classic British heavy metal band Saxon (6/10). They put on a good show and get the crowd going but I can't help feeling they are just a poor man's Iron Maiden. They are followed on the main stage by a band that show how much more destructive and, er, heavy the genre of metal is these days. Lamb Of God (6/10) are all grooves and growled vocals from frontman Randy Blythe. Sadly the show is spoilt somewhat by the sound (the only sound gripe I have from the whole weekend) as Blythe's vocals get lost in the pounding wall of sound the band is producing. Blythe also suffers somewhat from the "American metal frontman swearing syndrome" but at least he does it with a bit of style and his band have the seriously heavy chops to back it up. Mastodon (9/10) are at the other end of the arena next and I get across in time to get right to the front. They're probably the best newish metal band in the world and their skill in playing their complex monsters of songs live. Their set is too short but every Hinds solo is perfectly executed and Troy Sanders puts huge amounts of energy into the performance, even managing to break his bass strings during the last song.
The worst kept secret of the festival is that Machine Head (7/10) are Sunday's "Special Guests" having originally dropped out of the festival after the massive pile of gooseberry that are Limp Bizkit were added. Sadly their set is spoilt a little by frontman Robb Flynn going on and on about wanting to break the record for most amount of circle pits ever seen at a festival. If he just shut his mouth and got on with playing some of the band's best songs the set would be a gargantuan powerhouse but because he takes so much time out to talk about pits and to make a rubbish speech about how much he loves their fans (supposedly). They do get the crowd going however, that's true enough. There are I'd estimate a good 15 circle pits around the place and I just about manage to avoid being caught in one myself, they're ok at the best of times but when you've been standing up almost exclusively for the past 24 hours they're a bit tiresome...and I don't want to lose my glasses like I nearly did at Hundred Reasons back in April. The highlight of Machine Head's set is the anthem that is 'Halo'. It is by far their best song and the chorus that echoes around Knebworth's grounds sounds so massive that it drowns out anything else for a time.
Machine Head being followed by Feeder (7/10) isn't something that makes sense when you really think about it. As Grant Nicholas and Taka Hirose's pop infused alternative grunge rock outfit are one of my favourite bands however I'm not complaining. They're a band I, and it seems several other members of the crowd, grew up with. The likes of 'Insomnia' and 'Just A Day' are well received, as is new song 'Sentimental'. They even play the gloriously rubbish 'Godzilla', which is quite fun live and the Nirvana cover 'Breed'. I do wish they'd sometimes play less predictable setlists though, I've heard some of these songs live at least 5 time! A break is in order after Feeder in which fish and chips are consumed (£5 constituting a festival bargain). Then, appearing slightly late because Limp Bizkit overran (an insult to the many brilliant hard-working bands around the world), the grunge legends that are Alice In Chains (10/10) take to the stage. They are, of course, sadly without deceased original frontman Layne Staley but his replacement William DuVall has a fine voice and, combined with guitarist and co-frontman Jerry Cantrell, the vocals soar along providing the crowd with plenty to sing during the likes of 'Dam That River' and especially 'Would?'. New songs 'A Looking In View' and 'Check My Brain' are also promising for the new record, due in September, and DuVall also gains bonus points for getting into the crowd towards the end of the set. After this the emotions run high for Nine Inch Nails (10/10). It is, for at least the forseeable future, their last UK performance. Trent Reznor pulls it out of the bag with a set comprised of intricate, mostly quiet and understated, songs. A large portion of their set is instrumental and the hits that some restless crowd members appear to be expecting don't appear. It is my first time seeing them and if it is my last then it is a sad thing but their set, which only lasts about 50 minutes due to some slight overrunning earlier, is a wonderful thing. 'Hurt' is everything live I imagined it to be...and more. Trent Reznor is very subdude and I could swear there were tears in his eyes during the heart-achingly beutiful 'Something I Can Never Have'. Due to the occasion they should have had at least an hour and a half and in fact I cannot help but feel that they would have been superb Saturday headliners in place of the disappointing Linkin Park.
I spend over an hour waiting for Metallica (10/10) to make sure I get a decent place. I've been waiting what seems like an eternity to see this greatest of all metal bands live and they are worth the wait. Every song is performed perfectly and the atmosphere is top notch. There's a lack of breathing room in the crowd but the likes of 'Fade To Black', 'One' and 'Master Of Puppets' are screamed back at the band with enough energy to cause a minor earthquake. The band is clearly loving every second of playing at Knebworth and throw in a cover of Queen's 'Stone Cold Crazy' for good measure. The atmosphere at the end of the show is made truly unforgettable by a chorus of 'Happy Birthday' for James Hetfield. He is then covered in custard pies and silly strings by a mixture of friends and family. It is a special moment, once in a lifetime stuff, from a once in a lifetime band. What better way could there be to close out a fantastic weekend of rock at Sonisphere Knebworth 2009?