Festival Frolics: Sonisphere '09

In amongst the invariably heavy, variably mundane metal, mud and Monster energy drinks lies the overblown majesty of Knebworth House and its legendary surrounding fields where this weekend, the likes of Metallica, Linkin Park and Nine Inch Nails join the ephemeral ranks of Led Zeppelin, Queen and... erm... Robbie Williams amongst those to have rocked the stately home. Bizarrely, where the turn of the new Millennium marked the resurgence of "nu-metal", infusing Hip-Hop with drop-D master classes before regurgitating musings bereft of meaning over the top, a genre which has since become almost entirely obsolete occupies prime position for the weekend’s Apollo Stage onslaught.

Not all that indebted to Zack de la Rocha’s anti-corporate nude activist statements are Alien Ant Farm; essentially one-hit wonders with a hit they in fact owe credit and the entailed royalties to the late, great MJ, they once appeared to sink without trace like Bud Light at a frat party. Tearing and gurning their way through ancient hard-hitters Movies and of course the aforementioned Smooth Criminal, Dryden Mitchell’s outdated but never outgunned whine provides a nostalgic trip back into adolescent angst that’s about as welcome as a shower come Sunday. Next stop: Spotify scouring. Rewinding a fair few years further are Bj√∂rn Again, playing their four thousand and first show in perhaps the shock slot of the weekend. Taking to the somewhat subdued, sun-drenched Saturn Stage their impeccable musicianship, choreographed-within-an-inch-of-its-life routine and Enter Sandman cover give the heftiest of hell raising guitar slingers a run for their money. Secret sing-alongs and guilty pleasures well and truly unearthed, the likes of opener Waterloo, a reinvigorated Mamma Mia and the 80s electro thunder of Gimme Gimme Gimme throw up an early show-stealer from the prime purveyors of validated impersonation. Who needs an ABBA reunion these days?

Playing at the heart of a Jagermeister truck and later in the eye of the storming crowd, Watford scamps Blackhole thrill a modest mound of revellers with their brand of suburban screamo. Front man Rich Carter may well have bro Frank hanging from the Gallows too if they carry on ripping grass and hair out of festival circuits with such visceral enthrallment. Coheed & Cambria ought to be penning the next saga to their apocalyptic comic book wizardry on the Apollo Stage right about now although they’re stranded on a ferry. When they do finally burst through Sonisphere’s heralded gates of steel, they gaze out onto a humid full house within the Bohemia tent. Opening with juggernaut Welcome Home, perhaps they required another ferry to carry their monstrous metal across to Blighty from wherever it was they got stuck in the mud. Up next, Ten Speed pretty much cements such a theory before monotony begins to set in amongst Iron Maiden covers and outstayed, ongoing guitar solos as the foundations crumble and a watered-down Blood Red Summer winds up the disappointment of all that could have been.

Overblown but far from outstayed are Californian "nu-metal" megastars Linkin Park, whirring through an elated hour of jilted scratches, cracked violin screeches and blasts from the past with as much throwback impact as 10p liquorice and Space Invaders. From the bombasts of Numb, Bleed It Out and What I’ve Done to the beautifully basic balladry of Breaking the Habit, they’re faultless. Up until front man Chester Bennington quenches his urge to let solo project Dead By Sunrise loose, at which point the crowd duly disperses. The ‘Park eventually return to belt out Transformers thrasher New Divide as well as a beefed-up re-run of One Step Closer. Whether Metallica will favour their subtle set or flame throw and melt the Knebworth sky only time will tell although as the festival’s house band, what’s the likelihood of the princes of ironic heavy metal renouncing their crown that easily?

Far less certain is the extent to which Killing Joke have in fact become a jovial parody of themselves; garbed in Polartech sweat shirts, every wonky electro metal gem trundles along gracefully, from the Robert Smith swagger of Love Like Blood to the gritty howls of Requiem. Undoubtedly out of this world both mentally and musically. Equally barking are Atlanta, Georgia’s mythic enthusiasts Mastodon. Opening with the most breathtakingly twisted kaleidoscopic metallic anthem this side of dodgems and ferris wheels, twin guitars and synchronised shrieks offer the perfect respite to the often turgid arthritis-inducing desert composed of Jackson guitars and Mesa Boogie amplifiers. Over in Bohemia, Slipknot’s Corey Taylor has rammed the tent to the rafters, with lines of hoodie-clad devotees swarming around its innumerable entrances. Unfortunately, masks aside Taylor’s pathless acoustic meanderings infuriate rather than soothe battered ear drums. Bridging the gaping black hole between metal and the mainstream alongside The Prodigy and Pendulum (both can be previewed blaring out of every tent and iPod over the weekend) are Grant Nicholas’ Feeder who attract melancholic mellowers with a lethargic set littered with quintessential British indie linchpins Seven Days in the Sun and Buck Rogers. Some things are destined never to change it seems.

Further proof required? Look no further than Fred Durst’s Limp Bizkit; having lost out on court cases to NIN having seen his deprecation of Reznor’s Closer, Hot Dog, sued to breaking point and forced Machine Head to reconsider their Sonisphere appearance, Durst’s still the immature imbecile he never disproved himself to be. Stomping across the colossal Apollo stage like a rabid chimp in a reversed baseball cap, he throws himself onto guitarist Wes Borland who, for some unknown reason, is splattered with talcum powder as he distorts his way through the lost trash of My Generation, My Way and every other apathetically hopeless rap-metal horror they’ve ever spawned. Durst’s vocabulary could still fit on the back of a postage stamp as he vulgarly spits and swears his way through a hideous hour of disaffected dread. The only vaguely significant altercation to his ignorance is his seeming desire to build bridges burned at a time when he could afford a beer, a luxury he now allegedly lacks, by heaping praise on both Machine Head (as they “don’t give a fuck and their shit‘s harder than a motherfucker”) and later Nine Inch Nails, for inspiring the work of his soggier-than-ever Limp Bizkit. Trent Reznor watches through aviators stage right planning his razor-edged vengeance and whilst Borland’s dressed up as the Joker, the real clown of this show is Durst. At least Jacksonville must be delighted to have offloaded the village’s idiot…

What with Sonisphere marking the beginning of what’s set to be a two-year hiatus for Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails, they’d bow out with a rollickingly rocking greatest hits set, wouldn’t they? After all, this is the man that once demanded animalesque fornication whilst feeling from the inside and backed up Nietzsche by proclaiming the death of God. Yet sandwiched in between nemesis Durst and Hetfield’s impending onslaught and final hurrah of the best new festival to grace this year’s circuit, Reznor serves up quite the opposite: a delicate, touching farewell to entice the tears out as the sun sets on the horizon. Throughout the Wave Goodbye tour he’d promised to lace his subdued sets with fan favourites, ditching the glitz and glamour of previous light shows only to replace them with the sheer raw charm that began to drill his nails into hearts and minds two decades ago. As the hospital electronics of Wish kick in, he flicks a glimpse into all that could have been were we to experience the expected yet the ambulances swerve off course, taking us away into a vague land of genuine ambient genius. Reznor seemingly pained and emotionally imbalanced, the hauntingly vacuous piano opening of Something I Can Never Have makes NIN seem about as out of place on the running order as Fred Durst in a graduation gown, before the beautiful lilt of The Frail swathes headlong into a brutal Kalimba-led enhancement of The Wretched. It may not have turned out the way you wanted it to but by God, Hurt provides the climax to the closest an hour can humanly come to musical perfection.

All that remains is for Metallica to rip open the cellophane to the fireworks and fulfil expectations, hopes and dreams, shredding through unfathomably ideal heavy metal that every (Rock)band has covered all weekend long, from Master of Puppets to One and then on to Nothing Else Matters and Enter Sandman. Nine Inch Nails did everything to demonstrate how alive and well the beating heart to the heavier end of the musical spectrum is and whilst NME may veer a few thousand miles clear of it, Sonisphere can be sure of injecting itself into its coursing veins.

Nine Inch Nails- Now I'm Nothing (Wave Goodbye: O2 Arena 15.07.09)