Sonisphere 2010 arrives and it’s not a moment too soon. The weather is near perfect and Knebworth is ready for a weekend of top class rock, set to be rounded off, of course, by returning metal titans Iron Maiden. Before then however, is an elongated Sonisphere, this year starting as it does on Friday night rather than Saturday morning.
Sonisphere ’10 starts off for me with American retro progsters Bigelf (7/10) whose Sabbath heavy riffs, coexisting alongside keyboard and organ flourishes, make the newly arrived Knebworth crowd immediately feel at home in the Bohemia tent. A nice dose of fun, simple rock n’ roll to start off the weekend. Over on the Saturn stage, 80s rockers Europe (7/10) spend their set with a crowd who are, predominantly speaking, just waiting for them to play that song. This is rather harsh on the Swedes however as their set is full of solid, if not overly spectacular, hard rock anthems. ‘Rock the Night’ even features a special tribute to the recently deceased legend of Ronnie James Dio, with the band performing a few bars of ‘Heaven and Hell’ in the middle of the song. They end, predictably enough, with ‘The Final Countdown’, prompting a general feeling of good will amongst all Sonisphere goers present. Over on the Jagermeister stage industrial metal quartet October File (8/10) blast through a blistering set that is all steel coated riffs and bowel shaking bass underneath deliciously harsh vocals. Sadly they’re only onstage for 25 minutes, but it’s an impressive 25 minutes at that. Over at the Bowtime Bar are Northern Ireland’s finest in the shape of And So I Watch You From Afar (9/10). Energetic as always, and proving that vocals are not at all necessary for exciting music in any way, the quartet are helped by excellent clarity of sound but not by the fact that they have to squeeze into a mere half an hour set which is something of a travesty. Back with the Jagermeister stage, stoner duo Winnebago Deal (7/10) don’t seem to care that nobody watching them can hear the vocals as they set about pummelling their instruments into oblivion. There lack of subtlety would be a little tiring over a longer period of time I’d imagine but, for half an hour, they are more than satisfying. Annoyingly Karma To Burn have been scheduled for exactly the same time as one of my favourite bands, 65daysofstatic (10/10), so I miss out on them but am more than amply rewarded with a fine 65dos set. The band are the only ones at Sonisphere capable of rocking hard (‘Retreat! Retreat!’), raving equally hard (‘Tiger Girl’) and making hairs on the back of necks stand up (the always glorious ‘Radio Protector’). As they are only sub-headlining Bohemia, they depart after a 40 minute set but a perfect 40 minute set at that. Friday ends for me at this juncture and I leave to the strains of Alice Cooper’s set ending on the Saturn stage.
Saturday sees me make my first trip of the weekend to the Red Bull Bedroom Jam Tent, where young, up and coming bands are given a chance to shine. Stand Up Guy (9/10) may not be particularly young but, if anyone who listens to music nowadays has any sense, they’re very much up and coming. Their dense post-metal features a mix of harsh and clean vocals to great sonic effect. The only slight criticism to be made comes from the keyboard, which is apparently superfluous to the mix throughout much of their set; although that may very well be the result of less than satisfactory sound rather than their own fault. A very impressive set by them is followed by blues rockers the Tom Hollister Trio (6/10) on the Jagermeister stage. With songs often dominated by a virtuoso guitarist, they aren’t as far outside the Sonisphere blueprint as one might think but they still provide more of an opportunity to sit in the sun and relax than anything else. Security obviously doesn’t think this is the case as the trio start their set with no more than twelve stewards lined up in front of the stage. They are soon joined by another five stewards to total seventeen. To be fair, the guy in the wheelchair near the front of the stage looked like he could have been about to cause some serious trouble. Cars on Fire (9/10) rip up the Bowtime tent. Many of the medium sized crowd seem to be looking for a softer side of Sonisphere during their set but hopes of that are immediately ruined when frontman Ali Ross jumps from stage to crowd within a minute of the band coming on stage, proceeding to scream out his lyrics in the faces of various crowd members. This is just the first of many Ross trips into the crowd during their half hour set which showcases an exciting band with more than a little of Reuben at their heaviest about them. Being able to end with a double header of ‘Sharks’ and ‘Burn the Suits’ is something few bands without an album even out yet can manage. A great set by the Bristolians; all those people watching Soulfly on the main stages missed out. Anthrax (9/10) were one of the highlights of Sonisphere 2009 with their crowd pleasing set led by vocalist John Bush. It became clear soon afterward however that Bush, although only having just returned to the band after a lengthy absence, was not interested in a long term return to the ‘thrax. Thus Joey Belladonna has returned after an even lengthier absence to front the band once more. Any doubters are silenced by another assured set, even if it once again dominated by the hits. Any band that can call on ‘Caught in a Mosh’ to open things up has an immediate advantage and that, along with the likes of ‘Antisocial’ and ‘Indians’, are rapturously received by the thrash hungry crowd. The band also play an excerpt of ‘Heaven and Hell’ during their set as a dedication to Dio, with Belladonna having been a close friend of the great man. Closing with ‘I am the Law’ and a promise from Scott Ian to deliver a new album (at last) in the near future. Anthrax are once again a highlight of Sonisphere Knebworth. Fear Factory (10/10) are better than they have ever been these days. With the legal wrangling over the band’s name seemingly finally at an end and with a now apparently settled line-up featuring, most importantly, vocalist Burton C. Bell and guitarist Dino Cazeres, the industrial metal quartet are in the form of their lives. From the moment their set starts with the brilliant title track from their newest album, ‘Mechanize’, the band are on a roll and even a temporary shutdown of the guitar and bass rigs doesn’t detract from a top quality set. The band wheel out their greatest moments alongside highlights of the new record and receive rapt attention from a crowd that is a mix between those who are big fans of the band and those who have only heard about them. Although seeing them here on the Saturn stage isn’t quite the same as seeing them in the confines of the surprisingly small venues they still play when touring in the UK this is still the set of the weekend thus far. Ending with a fist pumping rendition of ‘Replica’, the band leave the stage with Bell telling the crowd, in his best Terminator voice, “We will be back”. Let’s hope it’s quite soon. Due to some ridiculous scheduling, Katatonia (8/10) are halfway through their set by the time I get to the Bohemia tent in order to see them. Who thought it was a good idea to put two of the most metal bands of the weekend on at the same time as each other? Still it’s good to catch the second half of their set including excellent renditions of ‘Forsaker’ and ‘Leaders’. It’s equally good to see this band being given a festival slot here in the UK as all too often the riches of the Scandinavian metal scene, despite being so close, are totally ignored by festival organisers. The second half of Rinoa (8/10)’s set is impressive as well. Their epic post-hardcore sound may look totally at odds with the five band members on stage but it sounds brilliant. They are a band with great things ahead of them. Audrey Horne (8/10) aren’t what you’d really expect of a Norwegian band as they are more good time hard rock than darkest metal. An enjoyable set by the band is well received by a sizeable Jagermeister fuelled crowd. Apocalyptica (5/10) are really boring live. Why they are higher on the bill than Anthrax and Fear Factory is a source of utter puzzlement for me. Surely we’re all over that ‘cello metal’ thing nowadays anyway! They aren’t bad, just dull. Saturday ends with just a part of their set for me as I’m off to see Biffy for the evening’s entertainment instead of staying at Knebworth for Rammstein!
Sunday begins with Ian Kenny telling Knebworth that Karnivool (9/10) are “your motherfucking breakfast man!” as they open the main stages for the day with their rumbling alt-prog-metal. It’s an impressive set that will surely win the band new additions to their growing legion of UK fans. It shows off both the organised chaos they can provide (‘Set Fire to the Hive’), the melodic anthems (‘All I Know’) and the slow-building epics (‘New Day’). Although opening Apollo will no doubt have been good for the band it is a shame that they weren’t able to have a longer set elsewhere as, for all their Aussie brilliance, half an hour isn’t really enough for them to show their absolute best. I still maintain that they are one of the best bands in the world at the moment, no matter what certain Damnation Festival organisers may think! Sadly having to get to Knebworth early for the ‘Vool means I have to sit through the less exciting part of Sunday’s bill. Slam Cartel (5/10) are dull and unimaginative. Sacred Betrayal (2/10) are bad enough to fall into the category of bands that should stop doing shows in case they lose the day jobs that surely must suit them far better. American indie rockers Firebug (5/10) are somewhat plodding and also have the disadvantage of a frontwoman who tells the audience “As you may have heard it’s been very hard in our country recently”. No shit, I thought the USA’s incredibly reliable OTT capitalist system was exempt from the financial crisis. “I know it’s bad over here as well but in America it’s really bad”. Yeah, I hear it’s practically the third world out there these days. Political banter is inadvisable onstage if you do not know what you are talking about. Allies (6/10) are a bit like a more relaxed Pearl Jam and start off their set well but one could be forgiven for thinking that nearly all their songs are musically exactly the same. Last year Sonisphere had Abba tribute Bjorn Again. This year it’s The Fab Beatles (3/10) whom, you may have guessed, are a Beatles tribute. Sadly they aren’t a good Beatles tribute. The accents change every time they open their mouths and they don’t even seem to be especially adept at playing the songs right; this is really quite important if you are going to have a tribute band. Not good, maybe this strangle slot can be abandoned for next year? Unless they can persuade Rolf Harris to play of course. Rise to Remain (7/10) attract a very large crowd in Bohemia for their set. Led by Austin Dickinson (yes, the son of that Dickinson) their brand of metalcore is equally heavy and melodic and, although it would be easy to cynically claim their quick rise in profile is down to the Dickinson connection, they really are a darn site better than most of the bands that clog up the genre. The end of their set is missed by some who instead head off to Apollo to see Skindred (8/10) play to by far the largest crowd they have played to yet in their career. The Welsh ragga-metal quartet arrive on stage resplendent in shiny silver suits and with frontman Benji Webbe waving a gigantic Union Jack. Whilst they are an excellent live act, and surprisingly good on such a huge stage, the problem with Skindred is the same as always. The songs, whilst fun, simply are not good enough to realistically claim the band are as amazing as some often say they are. It’s still a great set though and ‘Nobody’ is becoming the ultimate Sonisphere anthem. After the Ordeal (6/10) seem to be one of a number of unspectacular metalcore acts populating the Red Bull tent. Their set is alright, and better than plenty of other similar bands, but the vocalist is clearly struggling to hit the high notes (by his own admission) and there is little to suggest that they are anything particularly special. Slayer (9/10) are Slayer. Therefore seeing them is pretty thrashing awesome. Although Tom Araya is unusually static, as a result of his recent neck problems, their set is full of the high speed, high octane metal that made them famous and none of the dodgy slush they produced in their dodgy period. Drummer Dave Lombardo is a joy to watch whilst the duo of Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King shred away like there is no tomorrow in front of their huge wall of amps. The only problem is that the band only have 45 minutes to play. This if Slayer FFS! They should be playing for at least an hour and anything less is something of a travesty at a supposed metal festival. Perhaps it was fate that gave Slayer such a short set however as it enables me to amble across to the Bowtime tent and witness Kvelertak (10/10). These Norwegians don’t really need to be classified, they are Kvelertak and that is all you need to know. If you are desperate to gain an impression of their sound then think hardcore with black metal vocals and occasional bouts of jazz drumming. The band spend their set careering around the stage at 200mph yet rarely bump into one another and never miss the opportunity to scream the lyrics (refreshingly in their native language) in the direction of the audience. They make Slayer sound like Snow Patrol and they are, without a doubt, the best band of the weekend. You NEED to hear and see this band. After them Alice in Chains (8/10) sound, understandably, a little uninteresting. Perhaps it is the fact that last year they were on a smaller stage and had a much smaller crowd but their Sonisphere 2010 just isn’t as good as their one of the previous year. The energy levels are certainly lower and there isn’t the same special atmosphere. Therefore, after the opening 20 minutes of their set I head across to the Red Bull tent to catch a set by Welwyn hardcore ‘legends’ Heights (7/10). They play to a fairly small crowd but put their all into it. Whilst I still think their debut EP is the best debut release I’ve heard by a band for many, many years I also think their live show needs to become a little more exciting. The nerves are a little obvious and, for what is practically a homecoming show, there is a slightly worrying seeming desire to get through the set as quickly as possible and get off as stage as quickly as possible. Vocalist Thom Debaere spends most of the set running backwards and forwards along the stage and, while the performance levels are admirable, there isn’t much energy apparent on stage. They will be a great live act in years to come I’m sure but they aren’t quite there yet. Converge (8/10) are much more like the finished article. Their frenetic technical hardcore isn’t everything live I hoped that it would be but it is still enough to make your neck feel like it’s about to fall off after a time. Perhaps the best thing about their set is the sudden rush to crowd surf that they provoke, contributing to the petrified faces of the stewards at the front of the stage. Much of the crowd are also petrified as many are only at the front to wait for Bohemia headliners Funeral for a Friend. Nobody told them they’d have to see one of the most panic attack inducing bands on the planet first! Over on the Jagermeister stage Irish hard rockers Sweet Savage (3/10) arrive to the general indifference of a medium sized crowd. They are at least as old as Maiden but with not as much songwriting talent. Their opener nearly sends me to sleep despite being less than four minutes long. To be honest, if a band has reached their age without getting further than an early evening slot on the smallest outdoor stage at a festival then perhaps it is time to give up. They really aren’t that good, after all. Fightstar (6/10) clearly want to be Muse, judging by the overdramatic tape that goes over the PA before they come on. When they finally do arrive on stage it seems that they forgot to sound check properly as Charlie Simpson’s vocals aren’t exactly clear in the mix. Although I’ve heard the band are good live they are a bit underwhelming in the flesh. The Xcerts (9/10) are never underwhelming. They are not only three guys who are clearly playing the music they love but they are infectiously unassuming, making it extremely difficult not to like them. They need not have worried about their reception in the Bowtime tent. Mass singalongs during ‘Crisis in the Slow Lane’ and ‘Home Versus Home’ prove they have plenty of fans present and frontman Murray Macleod even gets a high five from a guy in a Slayer tee in the front row, to his visible delight. Hopefully new album ‘Scatterbrain’ in October will earn them the chance to play in front of bigger crowds on bigger stages at festivals. Not too big though, because it’s great to turn up three minutes before they come on and walk straight to the front of the stage. The Xcerts aren’t destined to produce great things; they’re producing great things already. Slaves to Gravity (7/10) are finally on the verge of releasing a new album and headline the Jagermeister stage for the day. Although a good band listening to them still makes one think about how good they could be but aren’t, quite. Bohemia headliners Funeral for a Friend (8/10) are playing their final show with guitarist Darran Smith (see a couple of weeks back on my blog for a review of their last headlining show with him). Thus a crowd pleasing set is called for and delivered with ‘Roses for the dead’, ‘Juneau’ and ‘Into Oblivion (Reunion)’ following one another in close pursuit. I leave halfway through their set though in order to grab a good place for Maiden. This enables a short portion of Iggy and the Stooges (7/10)’s set to be visible. The guy has still got something, what it is however is still unclear after all these years. The crowd down the front seem to be having a pretty good time as does Iggy himself. Many have been waiting all weekend for Iron Maiden (10/10) to play their only UK show of 2010. With new album ‘The Final Frontier’ to promote the band choose to play a set that mainly focuses on material from the last decade with choice cuts from ‘Brave New World’ being particularly impressive. Although some in the crowd may not be familiar with such material they are fools if they don’t appreciate the majesty of the six musicians on stage. Drummer Nicko McBrain is still one of the best in the game and the duelling guitars of Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers are solotastic while Steve Harris’ bass still gallops along and holds the whole thing together. Bruce has still got a pretty good voice as well, now one thinks about it! In short Maiden are as good live today as ever, despite their ever advancing years. They are a band that fully deserves the legendary status they have been given and the lack of classics doesn’t detract from the top quality of their set. If anything it just makes the encore of ‘The Number of the Beast’, ‘Hallowed be thy Name’ and ‘Running Free’ all the more impressive and enjoyable. Maiden are a pleasure to behold and there aren’t many better bands to headline a festival. Hopefully Bruce wasn’t joking when he said they may have to come and play Sonisphere again sometime! A brilliant end to a brilliant weekend at Knebworth.