Live Report: Sonisphere Festival 2014

Let there be rock! For three whole days…

Clash sent Dannii Leivers to Knebworth, because someone’s got to go there. Thankfully for all concerned, there was a massive rock concert on! Something called Sonisphere. Phew. Because otherwise, what is there in Knebworth, anyway? Suppose Barry Norman lives nearby, if you were really stuck…

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Friday, July 4th  

The road to Sonisphere, like anywhere worth getting to, has been a bumpy one. The cancellation of the festival in 2012 was a disaster, but now it’s back, on the 40th anniversary of rock gigs at Knebworth, with everything that made it such a brilliant festival in the first place: rotating main stages to minimise clashes, great atmosphere, live wrestling at 2am, the “cheese” sign and a line-up that cost enough to put a dent in the world. Metallica and Iron Maiden aren’t the most inspired of headliners (one or the other has headlined either Download, Reading or Sonisphere every year since 2003), but they do sell tickets. Lots and lots of tickets. And let’s face it, after two years of money woes, there’s safety in those kind of numbers.

The Defiled open proceedings with aplomb and there’s guitar smashings, beaked dancers and a guy being crucified in the left corner of the stage amid their earworm choruses and electronic-tinged metalcore. Later, after Anti-Flag provide a rebellious punk sing-along, gloom godfather Gary Numan pulls out the surprise highlight of the day with a set mostly made up of material from last year’s ‘Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind)’. ‘Metal’ and ‘Cars’, from 1979’s ‘The Pleasure Principle’, are still clearly the blueprint that everyone from Nine Inch Nails, Rob Zombie and Depeche Mode have borrowed from, and the warped, industrial synths and thundering riffs of  ‘I Am Dust’ and ‘Hate Love Bleed’ don’t stutter in today’s searing heat.

You have to feel sorry for The Prodigy, this year’s headliners that nobody really wanted, made worse by the fact that Black Sabbath, Soundgarden and Faith No More are playing on this same night just 30 miles down the road at Hyde Park. They throw out ‘Breathe’, ‘Poison’ and ‘Voodoo People’ early on, but some of their lesser-played set choices, like ‘Rottweiler’ and ‘AWOL’, mean that crowd reaction just isn’t up there – even if it does make for an unpredictable set. 65daysofstatic are always a hypnotic proposition, and a blinding light show combined with the brooding build-up of ‘Heat Death Infinity Splinter’ and frantic, crashing glitchiness of ‘Piano Fights’ frazzles the minds of those in attendance.   

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Saturday, July 5th

Saturday, possibly the best day on paper, and Clash is dazedly watching three Japanese teenagers performing some kind of metal, Steps dance routine backed by a brutally proficient band. Babymetal are fun but pure novelty, and the first blasts of ‘Babymetal Death’ prove too much for the grizzled Iron Maiden fan stood by us, who leaves immediately, presumably for the Trooper Bar.

Over in the Jägermeister tent, it’s good to see that Stampin’ Ground’s brutal hardcore has lost none of its lethal potency as colossal circle pits flare to ‘Officer Down’. It makes Frank Turner seem even more of an outlier amongst today’s heavier crop. Armed with an acoustic guitar, he has the unenviable job of following Carcass, on vicious form after 2013’s album ‘Surgical Steel’. Yet his set is as rousing as ever. Perhaps it’s the fact every note of punk-folk he plays is such a celebration of life and love, or was it his claim of “I'll die with a BC Rich Warlock in my hand” that won over the metalheads?

The sun comes out for Deftones, who sound like a storm themselves; thunderingly heavy and beautiful at the same time. ‘Digital Bath’ and ‘Rosemary’ has them at their slow-burning, doomy best; but the crowd is hankering for something weightier. The band plays a ‘Diamond Eyes’ duo in ‘Rocket Skates’ and ‘CMND/CTRL’ and everyone’s happy.

Tonight, Clash will speak to people who dismiss Slayer’s set as merely “okay” and others who think, minus the late Jeff Hanneman and drummer Dave Lombardo, it’s really not Slayer at all. We’re firmly in the camp with those who go mental as ‘Hell Awaits’ hits its stride with intense ferocity. The next hour passes in a blur of aggression and sheer evil as ‘War Ensemble’, ‘Dead Skin Mask’, ‘Raining Blood’ and ‘Angel Of Death’ fly by with a grace and speed bordering on majesty.

A couple of hours ago, Bruce Dickinson flew a plane over Knebworth as part of an organised dogfight. Maiden fans might feel they need to be impressed, but it’s the most self-indulgent load of bollocks Clash has seen all weekend – and we caught two minutes of Bam Magara’s F*ckface Unstoppable doing ‘Bend My Dick’ yesterday. Iron Maiden themselves, though, are obviously a more thrilling prospect.

Tonight is the final night of the seemingly endless Maiden England World Tour, and it’s pretty much the same set we saw them do at Download last year, with a few tweaks (‘Revelations’ and ‘Sanctuary’ are included, from debut LP ‘Iron Maiden’) and more Eddie action. But Maiden are such a spectacle that they’re always enjoyable. The prospect of a midnight The Sisters Of Mercy set is just as exciting to us, though. We can’t see the band for heavy smoke, but from the crunchy riffs of ‘More’ and jagged stabs of ‘Vision Thing’ to a frantic ‘Temple of Love’ and perfect ‘This Corrosion, the music does the talking.

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Sunday, July 6th

Sunday dawns and there’s more than a few bleary eyes about the site. But it’s okay, Gojira are playing in the weekend’s stupidest slot at 11.15am. ‘Explosia’ is heavy enough to blast away 60,000 hangovers – but it’s just criminal to bury such a spectacular band so far down the bill. Palm Reader are furiously chaotic while Bo Ningen, another odd one on a line-up like this, are on awesome form and the tent fills up quickly as they whip up their acid shoegaze merged with Black Sabbath riffs into a cacophony of yelps and feedback. Disappointingly, Beastmilk have missed their flight and won’t perform until much later, which means Clash will miss their forebodingly dark post-punk.

At a festival like this it takes a lot to claim the mantle of “weekend’s manliest band”. But Mastodon’s meaty riffs sound apocalyptically powerful today. The band is riding high at the moment – new album Once More ‘Round The Sun (review) entered the UK top 10 last week. It’s their least metal release to date – the techy-psychedelia of ‘The Motherload’ sounds particularly sprightly in today’s baking sun – but elsewhere Mastodon are lumbering and densely heavy: ‘Crystal Skull’ and the beastly ‘Megalodon’ suggest they’re not abdicating their throne as metal titans just yet.

As the heat of the day fades, Alice In Chains’ sludgy guitars and twisted yet beautifully on-point harmonies weave a moody kind of magic, especially on poignant closer ‘Rooster’. But, of course, today’s main event is Metallica.

Some may have worried their Glastonbury performance last week may have meant a watered-down show today. Those people are silly. Glastonbury may have been long on Metallica’s bucket list, but Knebworth is their crowd and the band knows it. Tonight’s ‘Metallica By Request’ set has been voted for by fans, and turns out to be less a one-off opportunity to hear some more obscure tracks and more a typical setlist. But when the band tears savagely into ‘Battery’ followed by ‘Master Of Puppets’, it hardly matters.

The visuals for ‘One’ are strikingly wonderful, fans are given the chance to introduce songs, and anyone who claims at this stage Metallica aren’t able to create golden moments ought to speak to the couple stood next to Clash who got engaged during ‘Nothing Else Matters’. It’s been a weekend of great memories – Sonisphere, you’d better be back next year.

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Words: Dannii Leivers
Main Photo: Keiron Brown (via Facebook)

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