Having had two years out of the fray (one festival was cancelled back in 2012 and one didn’t even reach the ticket sales phase), Sonisphere 2014 has much to prove if it is to become a permanent fixture of an already crowded festival scene. Announcing two of the world’s largest headliners in Iron Maiden and Metallica was a savvy move and ensured that metal fans were buying tickets in droves before the full bill was even released, and happily each subsequent line up revelation confirmed the notion that the organisers were taking their responsibilities seriously, even if the addition of the Prodigy as Friday night’s headliner was controversial for some. Ultimately, however, Sonisphere put together one hell of a line-up. With the majority of tastes catered for within the heavy metal and rock scene, and a cleverly organised stage schedule which meant no painful clashes (seriously, why the hell don’t more festivals do this?), Sonisphere was a hugely impressive event this year.
Arriving Thursday to a Sonisphere already rapidly filling up, the first thing we notice is the well organised car park and entry system. Entering the car park took all of ten minutes whilst the entry system, initially appearing to be a nightmare, saw us pass form the back of a massive scrum into the festival itself, wristband exchanged, inside of fifteen minutes. Stewards dotted along the path made finding a camping spot easy and all in all it couldn’t have been easier getting into a festival of such scale. Arriving Thursday proved to be a grand plan because it gave us the chance to check out the variety of entertainment on offer, from the massive confines of the almost permanently operating Bohemia tent to the wide array of food stalls and beer tents available. Interestingly much of the post-festival moaning has been directed at food and beer prices, but given that in 1997 (yep we’re that old) we were paying £5 for the world’s worst burger at Reading festival, the increase in price (between £1 and £2 more) was more than offset by the amazing increase in quality and we would like to congratulate the majority of the festival caterers (especially the awesome Tartiflette stall) for providing excellent food over the weekend. Beer, on the other hand, at £5 a pint did seem pricey, but then it’s still no more expensive than Download and festival drinks have always been an expensive prospect so it seems a touch churlish to moan about it as being a specifically Sonisphere-related issue.
While catering was the victim of a fair amount of dissent, where very few people indeed directed their moaning was towards the music. Not only did Sonisphere pull together a stellar line up, but their sound system was, without doubt, one of the best, biggest and loudest that we have encountered with only a few bands encountering noticeable sound issues over the whole weekend. In short, it was a remarkable feat of organisation and engineering and the festival’s technical crew deserve a huge amount of respect and recognition for their hard work. For SonicAbuse the festival begins (thanks to a mysteriously acquired exhaustion on Friday morning) with Gary Numan. Gary’s work in recent years has been nothing less than a revelation. An artist who has continued to reassess and evolve his own work, Gary Numan in 2014 heads a relentless industrial juggernaut that spits out classic tunes like ‘cars’ with an attitude that easily surpasses even Fear Factory’s Gary-approved cover and new material (from the outstanding ‘splinter’ album) with a gusto that has the crowd roaring its approval. If the set misses anything it is the video-screen backdrop that made the last UK headline jaunt such an intense experience, but aside from this, Gary and his troops easily conquer Sonisphere with their charismatic and memorable performance and there is a strong argument they should have been higher up the bill. Next up is band of skulls whose performance lacks the intensity of Gary Numan. Still, they put up an impressive showing and lazy, hazy songs like ‘asleep at the wheel’ and ‘the devil takes care of his own’ demonstrates the band’s ability to pen memorable tunes that go down well in the blistering afternoon sunlight.
Avoiding HIM like the proverbial plague (sorry HIM fans!) we return in time for Limp Bizkit. I’m not quite sure what we expected, but Fred Durst and his crew demolished expectations in a way that left us slack-jawed with awe. I have no problem admitting my early love of Limp Bizkit, or even the fact that I still enjoy their early albums today, but the band’s endless bickering and odd choices of covers left me cold and I had assumed we had parted ways forever. As a result Friday’s showing was nothing less than a shot to the jaw. Say what you like about Fred Durst, the man is a charismatic performer and a master showman who took every opportunity to give the ever-growing crowd the show of their lives. From songs like ‘Hot dog’ to career-making cover ‘faith’, the band delivered in spades and they even succeeded in treading on forbidden territory by covering RATM’s untouchable ‘killing in the name’ in a manner that sent the crowd into orbit. Covers are all well and good, but in all honesty it was Limp’s own material that stole the day and the final delivery of ‘break stuff’ left the audience reeling. Limp Bizkit pretty much stole the day and left a lot of people reassessing their views of the band.
Somewhat controversial, the choice of Prodigy as headliner left some rock fans disappointed, but in truth the band have been tearing apart rock audiences with ease for years and Sonisphere is no exception. Loud as hell, with block rockin’ beats and an attitude that has more akin with punk than big beat, the band took on Sonisphere and reduced it to rubble. Classic tracks like ‘firestarter’ and ‘smack my bitch up’ hurtled by, whilst relatively new tracks ‘warrior’s dance’ and ‘omen’ were no less powerful. Sure there were doubters, but then there always are, and by the end of the Prodigy’s adrenalin charged set, the festivalgoers staggered wearily towards their tents, burnt by the sun, shattered by Limp Bizkit and destroyed by the Prodigy. All in all one hell of a start to the festival with Limp Bizkit just narrowly stealing band of the day thanks to Fred’s brilliantly assured performance.
Saturday starts wet and miserable, prompting a run for the camping stalls to get waterproofs and various other bits and pieces. We needn’t have bothered for by 2pm the rain has been banished and Anthrax are levelling audiences with classics like ‘I am the law’ and ‘caught in a mosh’. I was, for many years, not convinced by Anthrax. I don’t know why, they just didn’t speak to me in the way that Metallica or Slayer did, but in recent years (and particularly following the band’s performance at BOA last year) I have come to appreciate the band’s genius and heartfelt love for what they do. In Joey Belladonna the band have a charismatic and talented frontman whose genuine love for the crowd is shown in his efforts to get the cameras to focus on the audience rather than the band. His behaviour, demeanour and vocal talents are second to none and there was not a single person in the large audience who felt that Anthrax had delivered anything other than an amazing set. Over at the second stage, carcass deliver a set laden with attitude and spite, pointedly acknowledging that they play live and lithe without any technological gimmicks to moderate their sound. With tracks like ‘this mortal coil’ and ‘captive bolt pistol’, the band do what they do best, which is to deliver incisive death metal with a human heartbeat and a killer’s smile and for many metal fans it is a privilege simply to see the band in action once more. Deftones are always a reliable festival band and their ability to draw on a range of material from huge crowd-pleasing anthems such as ‘my own summer’ to ethereal mood pieces in the vein of ‘change’ keeps the crowd guessing. Chino has plenty of presence and the audience respond in kind, the mosh pit going crazy for the heavier pieces and nodding appreciatively during the quieter passages. With the main stage being prepped for the mighty maiden, Slayer deliver their brutal thrash with minimum interaction and maximum aggression. Playing a set list that is packed with classics (‘hell awaits’, ‘dead skin mask’, ‘seasons in the abyss’, ‘raining blood’ and ‘mandatory suicide’ – YESSSS!), they may be the least accessible of the big four, but they’re also the most reliable with not a single poor album to their name, and with a strong sound and a fervent audience, Slayer more than hold their own in the face of the oncoming Maiden storm.
Finally, after a lengthy wait, it is time for the legendary Iron Maiden to take the stage. There was never any doubt that Maiden would deliver – they are the most passionate, exciting, original metal band on the planet – but with Sonisphere’s sound system cranked up several notches and a set list tinkered with to include not only ‘revelations’ but also ‘phantom of the opera’, Bruce Dickinson and co simply annihilated every other band playing over the weekend. There is simply no comparison to any other band out there, as Maiden have it all: the songs, the attitude, the presence and the stage show. Even for those of us who saw the band at Download last year and in London later on, the show was stunning and yet another reminder (as if any were needed) that Iron Maiden are one of the most vital, thrilling live acts you will ever see. Performing songs such as ‘seventh son of a seventh son’, ‘wasted years’, ‘aces high’ and ‘run to the hills’, the band are simply untouchable (even a failed pyro during ‘Phantom…’ failed to throw the mighty Bruce off his stride) and by the time ‘fear of the dark’ comes round, the majority of Sonisphere are hoarse from singing so loud. Iron Maiden are band of the festival, no contest, and their next album/tour cannot come around soon enough.
Of all the days, Sunday is the day that truly excels overall. Starting with Gojira, the main stage doesn’t let up and it’s a non-stop metal fest. Gojira are simply immense. Their sound is cataclysmically loud, their skills beyond doubt and, even with their early time slot, they blow away the hangovers with ease, the highlight being the metallic deluge that is ‘the heaviest matter of the universe’. In contrast to every other band present, Devin Townsend Project brings the music of joy. There’s no other way to describe the mellifluous outpourings of a man once famous for telling his audience to fuck off who now sports a suit and a grin that can be seen from space. The melodies, the dense guitars and, of course, that stunning voice, they all combine to create music that genuinely makes you feel joyful to be alive. Highlights include a stunning ‘supercrush’, a monumental ‘war’ and a brutal version of ‘Juular’ that all but eclipses the original studio version (although Ziltoid is sadly missed). With stage presence that effortlessly involves everyone from front to back, Devin Townsend is an artist whose wit, humour and gift for melody is a genuine pleasure to witness and the only fault with his set is that it is far too short. Next up is Airbourne who open with ‘ready to rock’ and keep the AC/DCisms coming thick and fast from there. They play with attitude and energy, and the crowd is probably the largest of the day before Metallica, but the heat and the intense sun makes it a little harder to party than normal. Nonetheless ‘black dog barking’ sounds as huge as ever and the pit is kept almost constantly churning throughout.
With a swift return to heavier pastures, Mastadon play a festival pleasing set with the PA cranked up to be louder than god. ‘Oblivion’ and ‘the motherload’ open the set, and by the time ‘crystal skull’ is unleashed, mastodon have stamped their authority all over the festival. Next up are the kings of harmony, Alice in Chains. Opening with the classic one-two punch from ‘dirt’ of ‘them bones’ and ‘dam that river’, the band are on fine form and the waves of love flowing from the audience only intensify as the band deliver ‘again’, ‘check my brain’ and the evergreen finale of ‘rooster’. A typically reliable live act, here Alice in Chains stepped up their game and delivered a stunning performance to a field full of festival goers rapidly starting to resemble lobsters thanks to the intense battering of the sun. William is a brilliant frontman and the band have never sounded better, with Jerry’s guitar work sounding larger than ever on ‘it ain’t like that’ and ‘we die young’. Long one of my favourite bands, Alice in Chains were as brilliant as ever and the perfect support to metal titans Metallica. Before we get to Metallica, however, there is the not insignificant matter of Dream Theater, the progressive metal titans, headlining the second stage. In all honesty I have long wondered if a festival is truly the place for Dream Theater, a band more prone to three hour shows, to shine. The problem is not with the band’s musical muscle (which is exceptional), nor with James La Brie’s phenominal stage presence, but with the comparatively poor pacing of the set which kicks off with ‘the enemy inside’ and ‘the mirror’, both excellent songs, but neither of which are obvious openers. That said, Dream theater have always done their own thing rather than pander to the obvious, and it is a position to be respected, and by the second half the band unleash ‘on the backs of angels’ and a beautiful ‘along for the ride’ and the majority of the crowd are firmly with them.
With dusk approaching, Metallica have a lot to prove, not least following a rather lack lustre set at Glastonbury. Happily the band are far more at ease at a full-on metal festival and, with a fan-picked set list, the metal titans hit the stage running and never let up. ‘Battery’ opens proceedings with a bang and from then the audience is treated to a blistering ‘fuel’ (complete with massive video back drop), a laser-filled ‘one’ (although sadly no pyro), a towering ‘…and justice for all’ (narrowly beating ‘the four horseman’ as the song chosen on the day) and an elegant ‘fade to black’. It’s a fans’ set list and the band seem genuinely fired up, roaming the stage and interacting with the crowd. James, in particular, is in fine voice, his famed roar sounding louder than ever, and the band seem altogether more enthused and intense than might have been expected given the doom laden interviews given recently regarding age and playing in a metal band. The typical set closer of ‘seek and destroy’ comes complete with black Metallica balloons and the crowd (massively swollen for this final day) leaves happy, having been blessed with a weekend of mind blowing metal, too much beer and a generally chilled out audience.
Overall Sonisphere 2014 delivered on its promise of being a festival to remember. The gripes that have appeared subsequently – high food prices, lack of beer choice and car park related problems – are largely true of any festival and, in our opinion, handled better here than most. Certainly an hour to wait in the car park at the end pales in comparison to the four hours spent waiting at Donnington in 2012 and 2013. All of the bands we saw performed excellent sets, buoyed up by a friendly, enthusiastic crowd and a sound system that, surprisingly for a festival, was both loud and clear. Whether the organisers can secure a similarly immense line up next year remains to be seen, but the only possible conclusion is that Sonisphere 2014 was a resounding triumph.