Festivals at the heavier end of the spectrum have been around for a few years now, before that there were grandiose one days rock events. The early incarnations of the modern 'rock' festival took place 40 years ago at the home of rock Knebworth House. It was only just over 10 years ago the first one day event stretched to two days and offering camping for the first time that was at that other home of rock Donington when Download Festival was created by Stuart Galbraith and Andy Copping. Stuart Galbraith went on to create Sonisphere in 2009, and although the brand is a touring event held across Europe it's only proper festival version with camping is held here in the UK.
Sonisphere returned this year after a two year hiatus, and although it had changed little in terms of layout, or programming it, did offer more choice to the festival goer than I remember before.
There was a more varied choice of eating establishments then I remember last time, a wider variety of catering and plenty of vegetarian options although far and away the best was the place serving a delicious proper roast dinner on Sunday. However all my meals (hey I'm big I need to eat a lot, it's part of the job of reviewing honset) were all good from half a roast chicken, to Dorset wraps, to noodles, ribs, duck, ostrich burgers, normal burgers, yummy proper cake stalls, and big full haloumi breakfasts it was all nice nosh. And, and this is important - slightly cheaper than what I was paying at Glastonbury Festival the week before around £6-£7 a main meal.
Then there was the choice of drink options from your well known branded energy drinks to Bruce Dickinson's homebrew, to tea tents with a wide selection of teas, to proper baristas selling decent coffee, to milkshakes, smoothies, a real ale bar, and the standard lager and cider offerings. You have to understand I've been going to these sort of things for years, I first went to Knebworth in 1990 and went to Monsters Of Rock too, this much choice at a hard rock event was rather a surprise it was like a normal festival, just one where everyone wore black.
Hang on though that wasn't true either, guess which official shirt sold out first, there was none left by lunchtime on the first day anywhere, it was the tie dye one man! The tie dye one!
There's a few other changes in the make up of the audience to those events I remember of old, there are much fewer patch wearing knuckle draggers, there is a wide range of ages, and there are more women, a lot more women, the split is approaching 50/50. Okay at most festivals it's like that, but this is rock, this is supposed to be male dominated, and the amount of women and lack of loos, the site may seem like a small festival due to it's clever break up of space design but it can hold 60,000 and there appears to be only about 20 loos that the fairer sex can use, hence long queues, weirdly populated by women and their accompanying men folk, making them appear longer than they were. Putting taps in the same area, as the urinals and toilets, led to the usual muddy patch (the only mud on site) and a god awful smell! Have we really been holding music events for 40+ years and still can't work out how to provide facilities that don't make your shoes smell nasty the next day if you walk within 20 yards of them? I guess it only makes you think what facitilities were like back in the day.
There's also less attitude than the old days, there's not a single punch up in the crowd in the arena (there was some trouble in the campsite), there's no thefts, and organisers say crime is negligable, everyone appears to be here to listen to heavy beats, sing along, chat and enjoy the fairly decent weather bar two heavy short showers over the weekend to damp down the dust. I guess there police there and security but they were hardly a noticeable presence apart from those on the barrier helping us get water, and get down if crowd surfing, or get a ticking off if smoking in tents.
Though smoking appears to have been replaced here at least by a lot of steam and those vaping machines. The cigarette vendors appear to be selling less ciggies, though there's the occasional roller among the rockers.
Nowadays there's also kids, a fair few of them, whilst the event doesn't pander to them with workshops, or playparks they all wander about happily, sit on their parent's shoulders with headphones on and are enthusiastic about what they're watching.
Good to see the next generation like a bit of Slayer, Maiden, and Metallica. But it's not all about the old 'heritage' acts there's a wealth of new music to enjoy with the teenagers in the smaller tents. Many of which are full at the start of the show, but hang around for a few minutes and you could usually get in to see what all the fuss was about. Incredibly I got to see around 50 acts over the weekend, thanks to the site's compact size.
Which leads me on to the music, I missed the son of the Knebworth's House current occupiers open the show with Glass City Vice in the Satellite Stage but I did see some great newcomers and UK debutants in there over the weekend. I also thought about doing the music quiz but wow it was hardcore specialist!
Worth mentioning are Love Zombies, Max Raptor, Rival State, Little Matador, The Bots, The Hype Theory, Rival State, Empire, and The Safety Fire. All acts that give it a year or two will be gracing bigger stages.The good thing about the smaller stages was acts had short punchy sets, enabling fans to catch a wealth of talent and move quickly between the two minor stages, or seek shelter from the sun under the big tree.
Then at night there was the pro-wrestling, which proved almost as popular as the five hour wheelie bin jousting marathon out in the campsites. These were pretty rowdy at times, not quite as mental as previous years, but did highlight that whatever era we are in rock fans like to mess about late at night, and that involves booze and noise, by all accounts the 'quiet camping' was more successful. There's not much officially organised late night stuff on, but the campers are only too happy to make the usual deranged mix of games up, some of which have been happening for as long as I can remember in campsites like Reading, and I'm surprised limbo dancing, and trolley wars haven't become national sports. Some of the fun turned nasty on Friday, and I hope the guy who got a beating is okay.
Back in the arena, and there was also the Jagermeister Stage offerings, personal highlight was the UK debut of Carnifex who tore the place apart with their deathcore, awesome, though most were watching the wibblings of Fred Durst. Nearly every act on the bill in her looked a decent proposition for the bigger stages in the future, and there was even the occasional blast from the past like Anti-Nowhere League. Overall the two minor tents appeared to draw less of a crowd than last time, but I guess that was due to the bigger attractions on offer this year.
Bohemia, or the third stage showcased acts that could easily play outdoors the likes of 65daysofstatic, Comeback Kid, Yashin, Canterbury, Voodoo Six, Reckless Love, The Virginmarys, Truckfighters, and Bo Ningen excel alongside acts likeBlack Spiders (lacking a bit of humour from their set this year), Sebastian Bach, New Model Army, Kerbdog, Therapy?, and The Sisters of Mercy. Act of the weekend has to be The Defiled doing Nirvana covers though, as Nirvana Defiled, just hard enough for it not to be cheesy, with Courtney Love, a wheelchair, and boy what a singalong! Slightly edging Cancer Bats doing Black Sabbath a few years ago.
The Defiled also got the distinction of opening the festival on the big outdoor main stage on Friday. The Apollo Stage together with sibling the Saturn Stage are not supposed to host acts at the same time, a great idea, keeping most of the crowd exercised throughout the day, apart from those in fold up chairs (this is a metal fest!), although on Sunday a late start by Gojira means the stages do overlap for a while, and it's surprising how well the noise doesn't bleed from one to the other. The same day the entertaining Reel Big Fish lose the PA, and go acoustic for a while, and again it's surprising how well that works, though I remember Sum 41 doing similar after the plug was pulled on them for overrunning a few years ago.
There's a good mix of metal flavoured acts on both these stages, though Gary Numan mimes his set for some reason, Friday's headliners The Prodigy deliver a heavy mix of dance beats that's well received, and apparently Limp Bizkit were rollin' before them and entertained. Saturday saw us watch some planes dawdle about while a commentator tried to explain why we were and which one was Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson. No planes were shot down, or buzzed the crowd so all a bit too middle class air show for my liking.
Saturday, had the highlights of the weekend for me, right from opener TesseracT through drinking by numbers with Alestorm, to the UK debut of Babymetal (think crunching riffs meets SailorMoon) and hats off to our Japanese mosh fans particularly the one in a Pikachu onesie and the one with a neck brace who must have surfed over the barrier half a dozen times each, they started the circle pit, waved Japanese flags, yelled the lyrics, and generally were up for going bat shit mental. No longer do we do the horns of rock in this family, now it's the hand of the fox!
More hand gestures came courtesy of my new favourite act Ghost I've not seen or heard them before they rock big time, put on hell of a show, and look cool in their costumes. Though The Defiled's opening Lego video and two models (possibly Nina Kate) in bondage gear with a bird head mask on fiddling with Jesus and his cross deserve a close second place mention for their stage antics on Friday.
Then we got Anthrax, Carcass, Hundred Reasons, and Frank Turner who goes down well (not a patch on Anthrax though) with his agit-folk, though he did feel the unnecessary need to justify why he was there. Deftones, the mighty popular Slayer, and a fan friendly hit laiden set by Iron Maiden left us all happy to try to work out which mangled song from their back catalogue The Sisters of Mercy were performing behind that wall of smoke.
Sunday was an enjoyable national affair with Antipodeans Airbourne, and Karnivool following an upbeat Canadian in the shape of Devin Townsend, Mastodon smushed, Dropkick Murphys got our feet up, before Alice in Chains wowed, and Therapy? took us back with their Infernal Love. BY that time I was a bit wiped out by all the dashing about but it had been worth it, and there's just one, or maybe two acts left.
Ending the festival are Metallica, whose specialist screens have meant that before the sunsets we can't really see what's on them as the backing has had to be removed after it felled some light rigs. I'd seen the Californians the weekend before at Glastonbury, and they seemed slightly less tight, I guess they had less to prove. Guitarist Kirk Hammett also seemed to struggle slightly with tuning, as the night temperature dropped away. Even so the 'By Request' show is practically the same set as Glastonbury, there's no 'Damage Inc' . Although the fact 'Justice For All' beat 'Wherever I May Roam' in the on the night arena text vote proved it was being watched by fans, even if they liked the more recent crowd pleasing stuff. But then if they had played the rarities it would have been reminiscent of Iron Maiden's last appearance where most of the crowd knew little of their set. Once again the great British public excelled themselves by slagging off the fans who came up to announce the songs, and that was made worse when they all came from London. We aren't like Americans we don't cheer for our fellow fans getting their five minutes of fame, we ridicule and deride it's our way I guess.
Crowds are weird beasts at the best of times, and metal crowds even more so, pay £5 for a pint and then lob it skywards, have urinals and then piss on the walls around them, throw the detritus from meals on the floor next to a half empty bin, lob stuff at stage crew trying to fix screens, lob even more stuff at those fans in the snake pit (admittedly they didn't look that delighted to have spent so much money to be that close to their heroes), then throw more stuff at the guys trying to clear up the mess made on the walkways by those throwing stuff, shout abuse at the photographers who are just doing their jobs - I guess it's this that separates it from a normal festival. There's little else apart from the music and now Metallica have done Glastonbury I guess that will dilute across festivals in future too.
So, what sets Sonisphere apart? There's no advertising or hard sell, apart from the adverts to win festival tickets with a deoderant company, well metallers do smell cos we get sweaty, so that's targetted marketing I guess. But it's minimal compared to how much you're subjected to at some other festivals. They do seem to look after us pretty well when it comes to food and drink and entertainment.
But there's something else too, it's the way the bands behave on stage, it's as though they're acutely aware of all that heritage, those 40 years, and through them aknowledging it the crowd responds back. There's something special about the place that saw the last gigs in the UK by Queen and Led Zeppelin before they lost their lead singer and drummer respectively. It may be the largest capacity outdoor venue in England, and one of the top 10 annual biggest capacity festivals, but it never seems to let the audience be dwarved by it, it feels like a small intimate event, and that really helps to foster the atmosphere.
At a press conference on the final day, organisers revealed they would like to see Sonisphere back next year. Festival organiser Stuart Galbraith said it would return if he could book a decent line-up, and Henry Lytton Cobbold, the current occupier of Knebworth House, revealed later that they were already looking at possible dates.
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