Sonisphere, Europe’s first touring festival, has already built a reputation for innovation, bravery and pulling off the kind of coups that have been eluding promoters even as they topped music fans’ wish lists for generations.
In 2009 they introduced the dual main stage, making sure fans never had to worry about big bands clashing with one another again; choosing between Slipknot and Opeth, Iron Maiden and Motley Crue or Metallica and Avenged Sevenfold; a thing of the past.
In 2010 they made waves in the US, the UK and mainland Europe. Stuart Galbraith and Sonisphere convinced Germany industrial pyromaniacs Rammstein to headline a festival in UK for the first time ever, after years of fan requests and speculation. In Europe they reunited Thrash’s Big Four: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax, and beamed the performances into cinemas across the United States.
2011 sees Sonisphere listening to their fans once again, while still managing to tear up the rulebook. The Big Four are back, on English soil, after many feared British fans would miss out on one of the most important moments in metal history.
But that’s not all, Sonisphere have taken some serious risks promoting Biffy Clyro, a completely untested band, into the prestigious headline slot, when other festivals are shunning risk and embracing the past. Slipknot were given the opportunity to celebrate the life, and honour the death, of band mate Paul Gray with a two-minute silence and a poignant headline performance. While in their most daring move to date comedian Bill Bailey was named the headliner of the Saturn Stage, playing to 50,000 plus fans right before Slipknot took to the stage.
On top of that they’ve landed elusive performances from polarizing but hugely popular acts Opeth and The Mars Volta, and more impressively they’ve finally got French progressive metal monster Gojira to cross the channel and play one of the most highly anticipated major festival performances of the last ten years.
Only one question remains; with so much risk, so much innovation and such a gargantuan weight of expectation, could Sonisphere possibly live up to the hype?
The was no chance of Metallica letting the side down, they’re too reliable, and too accustomed to handling the pressure to let this moment slip through their fingers. Thirty years into their lengthy career James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, who once ran from their past, have now come to terms, not only with its importance to the music industry, but to their fans as well.
The Big Four: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax, (and for tonight only their ‘70s inspiration Diamond Head) share a stage; the four Bay Area legends who together set in motion the most radical shift in the evolution of metal since Van Halen reoriented stadium rock in the ‘70s. The bands, and the way in which they intertwined speed, technical, epic structures, irresistible hooks and bleak, almost macabre, subject matter, to create a new dominant sound, cast a long shadow over the genre. A shadow that metal has yet to escape or truly evolve beyond; despite some notable movements and sub-genres in metal, we are still living in a post-Big Four world.
Anthrax were the first of the Big Four to take to the stage unleashing the same fun filled set they’ve been touring for the best part of a decade. “Caught In A Mosh” and “Anti-Social” remains irresistible in the live arena, but a distinct feeling of disappointment permeates a stale set that, while wholly satisfying, failed to match the sense of occasion.
Having been met with extremely mixed reviews in recent years it was refreshing to see Dave Mustaine and Megadeth ripping into “Hangar 18” with the technique, tone and clarity that has been escaping the band in recent years. Skeptics in the crowd failed to warm to Mustaine’s raspy vocals but a stunning set closing combo of “Peace Sells…” and “Holy Wars…” managed to claw back a respect once lost.
By contrast Slayer have never had to worry about respect or reputation, possessing one of the most fervent and widespread fan bases in all of metal. However the band continue to find themselves blighted by a drum heavy mix that stampedes allover the band’s formidable guitar work. In spite of this frustrating failing the band persevered obliviously, powering through a crowd-pleasing set that sparked some of the weekend’s most ferocious circle pits.
Metallica took it upon themselves to embody the spirit of community that permeates both metal and Sonisphere festival, continually stressing a sense of family and shared experience. However, if the verbiage was jovial and friendly, the bands assault proved relentless. Drawing heavily on the band’s ‘80s hey day Metallica ripped into a buoyant and brutal rendition “Hit The Lights”, before reintroducing the hounding pursuit of “Creeping Death” and uncorking “Blackened” relentless battering. The latter provided an undeniable highlight, marrying a primal assault (which proved more bombastic live) to one of Hetfield’s most addictive chorus and verse combinations; as the band glided from the tracks opening pummeling to it’s carefully cultivate mid track groove and spiraling solo.
Before bringing the Big Four and Diamond Head on stage for the celebratory moment fans had been begging for, Metallica took the opportunity to spark giant sing-alongs to post-1990 works “Sad But True”, “Enter Sandman”, and “The Memory Remains”, which produced one of the weekend’s most memorable moments as the Knebworth crowd cooed the track’s refrain long beyond its conclusion. Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer and Diamond Head’s arrival on stage was met with tumultuous applause as the audience echoed “Am I Evil’s” chorus with long shredding aplomb. As if to underline the brutality and power of thrash, Metallica forwent the measured intro to Master Of Puppets stalwart “Battery” tearing straight its merciless thrash core.
Simply put, Metallica got it, they understood the occasion, harkening back to the brutal sound of their youth, while spreading an inclusive message and cultivating a welcoming atmosphere capable of uniting hard rock and metal fans of all ages and ilks. There were flaws, “For Whom The Bell Tolls” was an anti-climatic mess of guitar noise, but these moments were too fleeting, and too inconsequential to sink the final victory lap of the Big Four reunion tour.
Gojira were not the most obvious or easy to spot name on the marquee, but the sprawling and overflowing crowd that greeted the band when they stepped foot on Sonisphere’s Bohemia tent spoke to the importance and excitement that surrounds the progressive French outfit. As security struggled to contain a riot, and as an inflatable whale bounced above the crowd, Gojira melded together a series of complex and daring timing changes into one of the brutally heavy sets Sonisphere has ever seen. From Mars To Sirius stand outs “The Heaviest Matter In The Universe”, “Ocean Planet” and enticingly groove laden “Ocean Planet” carried the set before the raw roar of “Vacuity” sent the crowd home happy.
Scottish rockers Biffy Clyro attempted to tame a crowd of Metallica and Slipknot fans as they made their headlining debut on Saturday. The rumoured walk out among metal heads failed to materialize as Simon Neil and co. grabbed this major opportunity by the scruff of its neck, producing a surprisingly heavy and crowd pleasing headline set.
Familiarity was Biffy’s weakness, and as “That Golden Rule” dropped into “Living Is A Problem…” the set began to feel stale and overly rehearsed, as the band blew through the same tracks they’ve been touring relentlessly for the past five years. Aside from being Biffy’s first, this headline performance lacked a distinct air and uniqueness, and it in many ways felt like just another date on Biffy Clyro’s never ending revolving door tour. Regardless, the Scots produced one of the finest performances of their careers, and while they didn’t empathically cement their headline status, they proved themselves both capable and reliable should another organiser decide to give them nod.
Slipknot had no problem making their Sunday headline set feel momentous. The death of bassist Paul Gray turned their ninety-minute set into a heartfelt and poignant tribute that united an already game metal community. Slipknot remain rough, ready, and unpolished as a live headliner, but failure was inconceivable as the band moved large portions of the crowd to tears when, at the conclusion of “Surfacing”, the remaining band mates erected a shrine to their former bassist as the touching ballad (by Slipknot standards) “’Till We Die” oozed from the speakers.
Sonisphere went from strength to strength in 2011as the festival celebrated rock’s past and future, while paying tribute to its enduring sense of community and its fallen heroes. Innovation and risk were the buzzwords, but it was a carefully curated line up, and a series of meaningful moments and memorable sets that sent the 50,000+ in attendance home happy.
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