Sonisphere 2009 – Sonisphere 2009, Knebworth Park

Does the UK need another rock festival? And when I say “rock” I mean uppercase “ROCK”, or even “RAWK”. You know, as in metal and those who would closely align themselves with the same. Donington’s Download festival and its predecessor Monsters of Rock have had this market cornered for years, and even Reading grew out of it in the late ’80s and re-defined itself as the indie festival of choice. So do we need another ROCK festival?

Well, the rumours were that ticket sales hadn’t been that great. I have no evidence for this other than that every other person I know had won a competition for tickets to Sonisphere. But on the Sunday which I attended, the place is busy and vibrant and has an atmosphere which other festival start-ups might kill for. So what of the bands?

By the time yours truly arrives, Killing Joke are already on stage and confusing the hell out of those youngsters eating their breakfast burritos at the front of the arena. With trademark scary hair and makeup, Jaz Coleman stalks the stage like the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang… all staring eyes and old-school weirdness. Whether it really comes off on such a big stage, early afternoon, is another matter. What we have here though is the stuff of legend, and the Metallica fans should be paying more respect to the band that their heroes covered on Garage Inc., but most of the real support here seems to be from those who were already there the first time around. No surprise really.

Killing Joke Setlist: Requiem, Wardance, Love Like Blood, Eighties, The Wait, Pssyche

Then it’s a quick rush from the main stage to the secondary “Saturn” stage. One of the differences between Sonisphere and its contemporaries is the staggered performance times between the two main stages, so that you can catch bands on both with very little downtime in-between. Personally I found that I missed this downtime in some ways… those moments of reflection while waiting for the next band to appear, but this is simply a case on my part of “too much of a good thing”. If you want to then you can watch each of the bands playing the top two stages, and that has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?

Well maybe, but then it’s Saxon up next this Sunday afternoon, and, despite the fact that I earned my spurs in the early-80’s metal wars – just a little too late for the NWOBHM I grant you – when Biff Byford & co take the stage it’s more for the moment, and then I lose interest pretty quickly. There were plenty of folks loving it, but it’s all nostalgia and Saxon mean nothing to me in truth. With anthems such as “Heavy Metal Thunder” and “Denim and Leather”, this is their territory more than mine, and I’m sure the die-hards,and anyone else channelling the spirit of Spinal Tap, loved it.

Saxon Setlist: Battalions of Steel, Heavy Metal Thunder, Strangers In The Night, Let Me Feel Your Power, Princess Of The Night,Denim And Leather

Back to the main stage and Lamb of God really know how to get an audience going. From Richmond, Virginia, these lambs ain’t your silent kind, in fact they’re seriously loud and the crowd love them for it. Highlight of the set is a storming Laid to Rest.

Lamb of God setlist: The Passing, In Your Words, Set To Fail, Walk With Me In Hell, Now You’ve Got Something To Die For,Dead Seeds,Laid to Rest, Redneck, Black Label

Another change of scenery and we’re back at the Saturn stage for Mastodon. Previously a support act for tonight’s headliners Metallica, I expected these veterans from Atlanta, Georgia to draw a bigger crowd than they did, but no matter, those who missed out only had themselves to blame. Mastodon were huge and the first band of the day to turn the noise physical – at its peak the driving bass rattling my spine. Mastodon are prone to indulging themselves and letting the spirit of prog rock run through them, and this is no bad thing. Blood & Thunder, from debut album Leviathan – a concept album inspired by Moby Dick no less – is an awesome noise and the fans at the front rage harder than the Pacific ocean in a maelstrom, bellowing along with that infectious chorus… “White whale, holy grail“. But it’s the songs from new album Crack The Skye that impress the most. Mastodon will surely only continue to grow in stature.

Mastodon setlist: Oblivion, Megalodon, Blood and Thunder, The Czar, Crack The Skye, Iron Tusk, March Of The Fire Ants

On the main stage – the “Apollo” stage – it’s Machine Head up next. Or “Special Guests” according to the promotional posters, except that every man and his dog has known the identity of these “Special Guests” since the introduction of Limp Bizkit to the bill caused Machine Head to strop out and withdraw, only to back down and remove the announcement of their cancellation from their website just days before the festival. Still, when the MH backdrop falls there is a palpable excitement in the crowd. Machine Head are much loved here and when they come on stage they manipulate the crowd with all the craft and aplomb that a lion-handler teases his willing beast. Frontman Rob Flynn can’t resist a dig at Limp Bizkit, however: “It’s not about the ‘Nookie’, it’s about the rage”.

Feeder follow on the Saturn stage, and are remarkably well-received for a band considered a little too “pop” by a few who had complained about their presence in festival previews. Playing their biggest singles and throwing in a Nirvana cover (Breed) – just to be sure – they’re treated to a rousing reception.

Limp Bizkit are up next and refuse to be riled by Machine Head‘s earlier on-stage provocations. Reformed and with a successful Download performance behind them, they play a set that pleases the half of the audience that grew up with them and already love them, but they do little to win over those of us who have never seen the point. To be fair, guitarist Wes Borland – always the more interesting side of the band compared to Fred Durst’s track-suited jock personality – makes an effort and puts on an entertaining side-show, but it’s a relief when it’s all over and we can start looking forward to the evening and its accompanying headlining acts.

Machine Head setlist: Imperium, Ten Ton Hammer, Beautiful Morning, Old, Bulldozer, Struck A Nerve, Halo, Davidian

Feeder setlist: Pushing The Senses, Come Back Around, Godzilla, Sentimental, Insomnia, Feeling A Moment, Buck Rogers, Lost And Found, Breed, Just A Day

Limp Bizkit setlist: My Generation, Livin’ It Up, Show Me What You Got, Hot Dog, Eat You Alive, Rollin’, Break Stuff, My Way, Nookie, Faith, Take A Look Around

At this point I decide to forsake the Saturn stage, as I’m particularly keen to focus on the Apollo stage headliners, and I’ve never been a fan of either Alice In Chains or Avenged Sevenfold, so forgive me readers if I offend you on passing over those bands.

Instead I wanted to make sure I had a premium position for Nine Inch Nails.

Trent Reznor has previously made public that this will be the last UK show from the band he uses as a platform for his distinct take on music. Nine Inch Nails make a powerful, passionate noise that can compete in the heaviest of company, but what they’re not is a heavy metal band, and this evening they stand up to the audience at Knebworth and make that quite clear. Nine Inch Nails could have come onto the stage and blown the crowd away with a set of heavy classics such as Head Like A Hole, The Hand That Feeds or Closer, but they didn’t… they did something else – something very special instead.

I admit that playing all the classics would have been a great way to go out – and that’s what I was expecting. But what we got instead was a very heartfelt goodbye. A much more restrained, experimental set, focusing on the kind of heaviness that comes from within. This was a profound, cathartic performance that divided the crowd. This kind of show might usually be better considered in a small, indoor venue with an intimate atmosphere between artist and fan. To attempt the same at a festival of this scope, and particularly considering the general audience and the fact it was the band’s last-ever UK performance, is breathtakingly audacious. Something I Can Never Have is achingly beautiful, as is The Downward Spiral. To hear an entire audience sing along with Hurt, beneath a Knebworth sunset, is just something else.

After the set I talked to people who described this as “a performance for the fans” rather than the festival crowd. Well, that’s as maybe, but my wife, who had no previous exposure to NiN, described the set as her highlight of the day and was almost in tears in the latter part of the set. You didn’t need to be a fan… it was just either for you, or it wasn’t.

Nine Inch Nails setlist: The Way Out is Through, Wish, I Do Not Want This, Something I Can Never Have, Gone, Still, The Frail, The Wretched, Non Entity, Lights in the Sky, The Downward Spiral, Hurt

And then we have the moment that Knebworth has been waiting for. I can’t recall a single festival I have been to where the headliner was so singly the focus of attention. It seemed that every other person at Sonisphere was wearing a Metallica t-shirt.

As Metallica take the stage to a video clip from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly even the most hardened sceptic would surely understand the attraction… Metallica are enormous. ENORMOUS. They are sleek, slick and loud. They are the creators of some of the best metal of their generation, and they’re bringing it to Knebworth tonight.

James Hetfield is professionally charismatic and can work the crowd in a way that no-one could have possibly foreseen when he first reluctantly took over the mantle of frontman many years ago. He is an expert in the field – even the therapy speak he shares with the audience, which harks back to his treatment documented in the Some Kind of Monster feature, when he announces that he wants Metallica and the audience to “work together” to make “everything good”, actually makes sense in this environment.

Metallica can convince us of anything when they’re this tight – this good. Opening with Blackened and then setting their stall with Creeping Death, before blowing us away with a triple whammy of Fuel, Of Wolf And Man and my favourite – and I suspect the crowd’s favourite – Fade To Black they send us all into a frenzy. Metallica are consummate professionals. They deliver what you expect. This is metal pantomime at its best – a marked difference from a true artist such as Trent Reznor earlier in the evening – but they do it with style and they do it for you, the Metallica fan, to make your evening… that’s what this was all about. And what an evening it was…

Metallica setlist: Blackened, Creeping Death, Fuel, Of Wolf And Man, Fade To Black, Broken, Beat And Scarred, Cyanide, Sad But True, One, All Nightmare Long, The Day That Never Comes, Master Of Puppets, Dyers Eve, Nothing Else Matters, Enter Sandman Encore: Stone Cold Crazy, Hit The Lights, Seek & Destroy

Paul Fletcher

Updated: Aug 08, 2009

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Sonisphere 2009 – Sonisphere 2009, Knebworth Park | The Digital Fix