Sonisphere Festival… a review/comparison

So here is a very brief review of the UK Sonisphere Festival, with comparisons to its main competitor, the Download Festival.

Straight off the bat, the line-up this year for Sonisphere was great. Kudos. Anthrax played an ok set, but as a John Bush-era Anthrax fan, Joey Belladonna just doesn’t cut it for me. Megadeth played the best performance that I’ve seen of them in… well, years. Top work. Due to unforeseen circumstances I didn’t see Slayer, but I caught all of Metallica, and it was as blinding as you’d expect. My Metallica issue was that they seem to be playing the same set list at every Sonisphere in Europe, and their set felt like it lacked that personal touch and enthusiasm that Metallica so often bring to their live shows. Still, there are few bands in the world who can play like that, so I’ll let them off.

So, in comparison to Download? Sonisphere isn’t as good.This isn’t a fanboyish attack on fans of Sonisphere, but it’s just cold maths on my experience. After three years being established, you’d have hoped that the festival was better put together (especially considering the experience of the organisers) but they seem to be too interested in creating a Euro-dominating chain of branded festivals, and perhaps it’s this fest-by-numbers approach that leaves a lot to be desired. Here’s a note: chains work when an original business gains popularity for a particular reason, and not when people throw buckets of money at a dubious concept.

Anywho, why do I feel this way? Well, let’s start with the layout. One of Download’s biggest “issues” is the walk from campsite to arena. Personally, while it isn’t ideal, I feel that this segregation leads to a far better community feeling at the fest, but maybe that’s just me. Also, I quite like walking.
I’d heard that Sonisphere had contiguous campsites and arenas, which sounded like an improvement on the long walk, plus the greater possibility of a better nightlife, with more people willing to stay out, safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t face an exhausting walk in the dark. The reality of this is somewhat different though, as the campsites are still large and far away. If you want any sort of peace, you have to camp so far away from the arena, it renders any possible benefits moot.
On a similar note, the campsites are on a variety of hills and steep inclines, which I can’t imagine is fun drunk, in the rain, or drunk in the rain. They were also pretty exhausting to walk up and down, something that the tarmac and flat grass of Download doesn’t inflict on you.

While the campsites may give the drunk teens vertigo, most of the arena isn’t must better. With some of the fairground rides parked perilously on steep mounds, as well as the bar and food stalls, I began to feel slightly seasick. Oh, but there is one part that isn’t on a hill at all: the main stage.
This slightly annoyed me, but infuriated some of my shorter companions. There is no incline at all by the main stage, meaning that for shorter people   it’s impossible to see the band from a large percentage of the arena grounds. For some reason the television screens were placed very low on the stage, meaning that dependant on location, many of my entourage had views ranging from nil to fuck all. While this would be an improvement at a Lady Gaga concert, it’s not so good when you are trying to watch actual musical talent.

Sonisphere decided to roll out a dual stage system that people had apparently been demanding, where two stages that faced each other would be used, so that they could be interchangeably performed on and set up simultaneously. This meant that on the “first” and “second” stages (I’m not going to bother referring to the stages by their space themed names) would not clash bands, and the festival goers could then watch everything (at least on those stages) that they desired. To me, this seemed like an over complicated solution to a problem is best solved with intelligent booking and band placement, something that all other festivals opt to do, but dual stages are the unique selling point of Sonisphere (I think), so don’t expect them to go away. In theory it could be quite a good system, but the reality is again hampered by the natural hills and slopes, meaning that simply turning around to view the next stage isn’t an option. The second stage is out of sight from the first one, and is a fair walk. It’s no where near as far apart as the main/second stages at Download, but problems can arise when large portions of the main stage crowd head over to the second stage at Sonisphere, because when there’s nothing fucking on the main stage, there is something new on the second stage. At least clashes demand something of the pundit, namely that they choose beforehand what they would like to see, and prioritise, sometimes leaving another performance early. Truth be told, it wasn’t the biggest issue, but it sure didn’t work the way that it was sold to me.

Other comparisons? Well, the bar didn’t have pear cider, staple of festival booze, and it cost more than Download (at £4 a drink), BUT I always got served very quickly, and they ran a cash bar, so I’d go for that being a win. They had a large selection of drinks, but I stuck to lager. Would have preferred pear cider. Just sayin’. Sonisphere also hosts a bottle decanting tent outside the festival, meaning you can bring in any booze that’s put in a plastic bottle, definitely a pro, (doubly so when you consider that you can walk straight through to the main arena without being searched again).  Sonisphere runs the seemingly mandatory cups-for-cash scheme, like every other sodding festival in the world. Considering children under a certain age are allowed in for free, I can see some wiley slave labourers making a fortune out of this. It’s like gold farming, but with added elements of child abuse. So… a win?

The usual selection of stalls, food and rides were available, much like Downloads, only due to the layout difference, the day ticket holders got more than they do at Download. So kudos there, I guess. I suppose it’s handy for people who don’t live close to Afflecks Palace/Camden Town etc.

The layout of Sonisphere means that arena and campsite capacity is equal, meaning they want to only sell weekend tickets. This is ok in theory, but very few non-Glastonbury festivals sell out, and so to shift remaining tickets, this years festival was opened up to day ticket people, who objected to shelling out more money for less bands (compared to Download). Again, this was great in theory, but in practice was a bit of a confusion. To get to car parks or bus stops, you have to leave through the camp sites, which aren’t very well guarded. I could have easily stayed for the weekend if someone had pitched a tent for me. The wristbands were paper, so any one who had got there early could have emailed me a photo of it, and via photoshop I could have easily whipped up a sufficiently realistic wristband. There were nowhere near enough staff to police this. There was also a lack of information regarding where anything was. I saw some tents and stuff, but couldn’t find them. Official merchandise was thin on the ground, bar t shirts, and I had no idea where first aid, or pharmaceutical stalls were. I didn’t need them, but it’s always nice to know.

There was a massive bother entering and leaving the site. The shuttle busses had a 2 hour queue heading into the site at midday on Friday. This is confusing and agrravating in equal measure. Aggravating when there are a few hundred people queuing impressively patiently, while no less than four bus drivers decided to take their lunch breaks directly in front of the queue (no lie), despite the arena opening at around the same time. It was confusing as you’d have thought getting people into the bars and shops before bands were on would be something of a business priority for the festival organisers. The situation was similar on the way out. This in itself is a bitch because the last train leaves only 20 minutes after the headline act finishes: you’re lucky to be out of the arena by then. The taxi ranks was no better, and the £5 cab to the station (as advertised on the official website) cost £15. Apparently the prices change after a certain time, so I’d recommend that the festival organisers research this a bit better, and/or strike a deal with the cab companies. Similarly, having maybe a few more late night trains running especially for the festival would not go amiss. That and more regular shuttle busses. It got to the point where people were being asked £150 to get to London (fact: it’s not that far away), and people were actually paying it. Me? Alongside maybe 60+ other metalheads, I had to sleep in the station subway. Tramps en masse.

So, Sonisphere? Well, it’s a hell of a lot closer to my home than Download, but completely lacked the same atmosphere and spirit. People were friendly, although we didn’t really meet any random people like we might at Download, and it was definitely a big ol’ sausage fest. It has some growing and reorganising to do before I can take it seriously, and before I’d reconsider going back. It lacks that happiness and mixture of people that it needs to capture the charm and consistency of Download. So no, it isn’t as good. Oh, and it didn’t have any fucking pear cider.

PS A festival without amateur tits being flashed on screen is like a World Cup with realistic expectations. Un-British and  Disappointing.

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