The Grand Prix ”â a weekend of driving round and round a circuit to see who get to the finish first. Striking similarities to spending a weekend down the road from Silverstone at Knebworth for Sonisphere Festival, which entailed lots of walking round and round to see who got to the big top first. And sadly the Grand Prix got in the way of a timely arrival at the Festival too.
Choosing race weekend to go to a gig down the road wasn’t such a good idea, if the idea was to avoid traffic and get to said gig on time. Spending seven hours in a traffic jam knowing all the time that ‘The Big Four’ were actually on stage, fifteen minutes down the road didn’t make for happy campers. Neither was arriving on site just in time to hear Kerry King of the inimitable Slayer crash into the opening riffs of ‘Raining Blood’. It sounded amazing, and apparently was amazing.
Making do with seeing Metallica for the first time was my lot for the first day of Sonisphere then. Not a bad lot in the end though really.
Hitting the stage nearly half hour late, they ploughed through the tried and tested set of early material, preferable to some of the things they churned out after ‘The Black Album’ of ’91. Opening with ‘Hit The Lights’ from debut album ‘Kill Em All’ and going straight into ‘Master Of Puppets’, they played a whopping 18 songs, covering just about every great track they’ve ever released. The whole set was memory-filled, ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ being the first guitar riff I ever learnt from some hair rocker in Dawson’s, ‘Blackened’ the first song you thrashed around the bedroom to with your spotty teenage mates, ‘Seek & Destroy’ got the regulatory shouting from the crowd, and I got a little teary at the epic ‘One’, executed complete with grainy black and white film on a big screen, sound effects and pyrotechnics. Luckily Hetfield didn’t get in the way of them this time. Ending with an encore which included the rest of The Big Four playing Diamond Head’s classic ‘Am I Evil?’ and the brilliant ‘Creeping Death’ it was a pretty neat set. Nicely brushing over the fact again that no one really likes their new stuff as much as the old stuff, live anyway.
Now for the circuit running. The whole festival seemed to be a ring of repetetive stalls and fast food outlets, every corner you turned the same signage and branding was thrown at you. Made you feel a little crazy, topped with running from one side of a hill to the other to get from main to second stage. So first night panic plus huge crowds plus being at the front for Metallica, equalled not finding the Bohemia tent soon enough to get in and see Killing Joke. Trying to listen to ‘Eighties’ and ‘Love Like Blood’ from outside the giant tent, with the wail of fairground rides in your other ear, didn’t work too well, which was a huge shame.
Hayseed Dixie, the American covers band, took to the stage afterwards for a real good hoe-down. It’s such good fun prancing about half full of whiskey to ‘Ace Of Spades’ (MotÃÂ¶rehead) and ‘Black Dog’ (Led Zeppelin) as well as the sackload of AC/DC songs they do.
Saturday brought a day of clouds, seemingly brought on by Cavalera Conspiracy. Thick black rain filled ones emerged from behind the stage as they stormed through their set. Basically, they’re Sepultura, thrash/death metal with hardcore punk roots, and a third of their set being by the brothers’ original material anyway. Again the reliable old songs came out, ‘Refuse/Resist’ acting as a kind of anarchistic call to arms and ‘Roots Blody Roots’ turning into a shout-along. The CC songs were good, the kids came along for a bit of a show too, making it all in all quite a family affair.
The second stage, Saturn, had SUM41, which was easily avoided in favour of Macclesfield’s The Virgnmarys on the Jaegermeister stage. They’re a pretty great 3-piece classic rock band, and in the last couple of years have bagged high profile fans like Slash and Skin, mainly though also bagging tours with them too. Talented bunch of lads, and with songs like ‘Bang Bang Bang’ and ‘Portrait Of Red’ gathering more and more of a crowd their fanbase seems to be on the increase. And an explosive end to the set with ‘Self-Medication’ which involved a gong being whacked so hard by Danny Dolan (drummer) it fell over – ones to watch for sure.
The Bohemia tent was being taken up with the recently bereaved Steve-O (Jackass) doing some stand up. From outside, we listened to fifteen minutes of a really bad dick joke, which was repetitive, badly constructed, and made the chip van seem more appealing.
The evening brought some unexpected additions to a metal festival, Sonisphere having the reputation of being a bit heavier than Download where you might expect to see more mainstream acts. Weezer took the support slot to Biffy Clyro on the main stage, and actually have more songs you know than you realise, a massive nine albums to be precise. They’re not as twee and delicate as their marketing people lead you to believe they may be, running along the stage platforms and rocking out with hits like ‘Say It Ain’t So’ and ‘Hash Pipe’ which away from the context of videos full of plaid shirts and Happy Days, actually have a lot of similarities to some other acts over the weekend. For some reason they threw in a version of Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Anrdoid’ – pretty iniappropriate and pretty drab too. Luckily finishing with ‘Buddy Holly’ brought everything back round for them, although The Fonz was nowhere to be seen.
Quick skip over the hill to Saturn stage for The Mars Volta, playing their only show of 2011 ”â an honour to see them then. It was the icing on the math/prog rock cake really. The band have an innumerable amount of influences with melodic latino vocals and heavy riffs, live being very like Cedric (singer) and Omar’s (guitarist) previous incarnation At The Drive In of course. He’s a bit of a feisty one is Cedric, jerking about the stage like he’s been bewitched whilst the guitarist stands demurely humming along to unreleased tracks like ‘Dyslexicon’ in his retro cap. In fact only the closing four tracks were previously released material, including the beautful ‘The Widow’. Quite a big move to try out new ideas at your only show of the year, but it sounded amazing incorporating the recogniseable soaring, screeching vocals not dissimilar to Mike Patton, flouncy guitar solos as well as long experimental jam-outs.
Being crammed in the crowd unable to move meant missing French proggers Gojira which was a shame, so it was back to the main stage where Biffy Clyro undertook what was apparently their first ever headline of major festival. Surely that can’t be right, can it? Thankful of the opportunity to play such a festival, they acknowledged the fact that they didn’t really lie alongside the old school and new school thrash and metal acts. Very humble of them, but it transpired that they weren’t too out of place at all. As all headliners do, they had a full production of lights, explosions and streamer things thrown in the air, and the obvious hits were included. ‘Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies’ and ‘Mountains’ for their closing song, but they covered a good amount of heavier material from the whole of their back catalogue, pre-commercial leanings, even branching into a bit of ‘Raining Blood’ (Slayer) as a dedicaton to what could be seen as the purpose of the weekend, The Big Four.
Again the Bohemia tent was a nightmare to get in to, but eventually being allowed access to Sisters Of Mercy resulted in nothing but disappointment anyway. Late start, too much smoke and bad sound (even being stood right in the middle) meant a short stint with them for us. Another wander around the fast-food-circuit to try and locate the campsite again then.
Mumblings on Sunday morning seemed to be all about House Of Pain. Everyone was talking about how they were only looking forward to hearing ‘Jump Around’ before getting off to something else. Anything else in fact. They unfortunately ended with said song, as though they knew no one would stick around if they played it any earlier, and people promptly escaped at the last note. The rest of their set isn’t worth reporting on, they just looked too old and not very good really.
American’s Kylesa on the other hand were quite exciting, swerving from screamo to rock. Full of sludgy riffs from drop-tuned guitars, their psych rock/thrash metal thing involved a female singer and two drummers, who actually participated in drumming harmonies.
More from this newly discovered genre, sludge metal, and it was Mastodon time, who Kylesa actually toured with recently. I’m not too sure about sludge metal as a genre name, it doesn’t really sound to me like the type of word you associate with what you actually hear, it seems to conjour something more along the lines of Dead Meadow crossed with Napalm Death rather than precise, calculated, experimental sounds. With a faster pace than Opeth (to follow), Mastodon have similar wailing vocals but drop into heavy riffs rather than long-winded instrumentals. ‘Crack The Skye’ has a beautiful guitar intro, luring you into a false sense of security, totally misleading you and suddenly throwing in growling vocals. Following the thrash influences ‘March Of The Fire Ants’ jumped straight in with typical heavy diving bass and lots of double-pedalling. It’s good to listen to a band that keeps you emotionally excited and surprised by what comes next in their music, and for me this is Mastodon. Lovely singing parts that suddenly drop into dirgy thrash riffs and back again without drifting into too many prog tendencies was delicious. Favourite of the set was ‘Circle Of Cysquatch’ I think.
After an afternoon of pondering and chin-scratching, in the thoughtful sense rather than the unclean ‘I’m camping’ sense, and Airbourne brought a bit of fun. Bless them, but they’re basically an AC/DC copy-cat band, there’s not a lot of unique things you can say about them, every guitar part sounds familiar, every drum roll you’ve heard before, and not in the sense of similarities found in bands of a similar ilk. All totally enjoyable just the same, they play good, wholesome rock ‘n’ roll, tongue in cheek like Iron Maiden et al. Half way through ‘Runnin Wild’ singer Joel O’Keefe got adventurous and climbed the rigging. Everyone seemed to think he’d stop half way up, considering the canopy was easily 20 metres high, but no, he went right to the top, and played a guitar solo on his Flying-V, topless, on the roof of the stage. How much more 80s spectacular can you get without pink lipstick and hairspray.
The rest of Sunday evening was spent going from one side of the hill to the other, stage to stage, continuing with MotÃÂ¶rhead. A pretty poignant set from the guys, sadly Würzel their original guitarist passed away that day from heart failiure. It didn’t stop a few of the usual jokes between the three of them though, as well as an absolutely massive drum solo from Mikkey Dee which must seriously have lasted for ten minutes. MotÃÂ¶rhead songs do tend to sound pretty much the same, if you’re not familiar with anything other than ‘Ace Of Spades’ it won’t really matter, there’s not much variety of sound and zero experimentation with different formats. But it’s the history that attaches you to the band, the on stage laughs, the connection with the crownd and the fact that they’re the best UK rockers still on the scene. The whole set was obviously dedicated to Würzel, and finishing with ‘Overkill’ brought a smile to even the toughest metal-head’s face.
Moving onto something quite different, Scandinavian metal. It’s always scared me a bit, all those thoughts of high suicide rates and the freakish goings on of bands like Mayhem. But they’re Norwegian, and apparently differently inclined than their Swedish neighbours. Bring it on then Opeth, progressive death metal, with more classical influences than Mastodon, less stormng through songs and more of a mellifluous meander into some thoughtful melodies. But again, you’ve been misled and a death metal growl bites your ear just to bring you back to reality. With a set of a mere five songs, their meandering is pretty obvious, but enjoyable all the same.
To an untrained metaller, Limp Bizkit could be put in the same bracket as House Of Pain ”â the hip-hop hats, basketball socks, the top ten hit that had bouncy cars in the video etc etc. Just to contradict all of this, they’re actually a farily hefty live act. On-off-on member Wes Borland’s outfit for the day meant he was dressed up in shiny black body paint like a pint of Guinness, and Fred Durst was remarkably un-cheesy, a strong front-man throughout. Starting with ‘Intobra’ from new album ‘Gold Cobra’ their set was again full of old classics, predominantly from their fast selling third album ‘Chocolate Starfish And The Hot Dog Flavoured Water’. What a name. But it was the fastest selling rock album ever, so they must’ve done something right. Classics ‘My Generation’ and ‘Rollin’ were really good, heavy bass and sharp guitar playing, and not a note wrong.
Comedian Bill Bailey headlined the Saturn stage, which despite musical leanings, having a comedian top of the bill (geddit?) is an ambitious thing to do. He said he had the biggest crowd of any comedy gig ever. It could be true, there was no punchline to follow, and people hadn’t run off around fast-food-circuit. The best part of his set had to be the much publicised cover of Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ on the horns, absolutely hilarious and yet very well executed.
Following in the comedy theme, in a way, metal’s answer to clowns Slipknot headlined the main stage. Part of the new wave of American heavy metal alongside the likes of Machine Head, Biohazard and Pantera, songs are full of diving bass and death metal growls, with some melody to lyrics and Corey Taylor actually singing at times. Oddly, another death was being mourned, bassist Paul Gray died May last year, and has still not been replaced, his uniquely numbered costume and mask hanging rather sinisterly by the side of the drum riser, where he would have stood. Slipknot have some pretty interesting music when you listen to it without any preconceptions, the visual appeal being drummers on hydraulic platforms shooting up and down on stage, but audibly steel drums and jolting guitar with some melodic lyrics on songs like ‘Duality’ made for a more exciting performance than expected. They played the controversial ‘Disasterpiece’ and ‘Surfacing’, supposedly the songs behind numerous unsavoury acts from delinquent individuals. Things that people can’t pigeon-hole always court controversy and attention, and a group of eight or nine grown men jumping about a stage in orange boiler suits, wearing clown masks, hitting things and screaming a lot does sound a bit crazy and random. After experiencing it though, it really wasn’t, and you don’t even notice the masks after a while. Well you can’t really when you’re stood half a mile away anyway.
Finishing the weekend’s fun was Bat Sabbath, basically Cancer Bats doing Black Sabbath covers. They were actually really good at it, and obviously these songs aren’t often played live any more, so hearing the intro to ‘Iron Man’ and that unmistakeable ‘Paranoid’ guitar riff was quite nice. More memories.
All in all Sonisphere was a weekend of M, without wanting to sound like Sesame Street. Metallica, Mastodon and The Mars Volta being the best bands, motorways, mourning and memories covering the rest. Off around the fast-food-circuit for the last time then and ready to leave, missing the Grand Prix traffic, thankfully.