SONISPHERE BEER CUP 1Weather predictions for the second day spoke of rain, and indeed where I live there certainly had been some, along with an all out storm. Travelling the thirty or so kilometres to the venue, it came as somewhat of a surprise then to find stifling sunshine. Even if I was now talking like Dr. No-vocal-cords, and my neck could barely support the weight of my cranium after Slayer, none of it was too much of a problem as the only band on today’s agenda was Iron Maiden doing their ‘Maiden England’ tour. Unfortunately turning up in the late afternoon meant missing the likes of Mastodon and Ghost, who I would have had some interest in seeing. At least with the latter I had already witnessed them opening up the 2010 Hammer of Doom festival. Judging by their current level of fame and friends, today would have been quite a different experience, I suspect.

Instead, it was down to Epica to greet my ears on site for day two. Which, unfortunately, I can’t really say was all that much of a treat. As pretty and passionate as Simone Simons is, I find her style of singing far too penetrating. The music was as heavy as I expected – thanks to one former half of God Dethroned being amongst the band’s ranks – but it was just not my thing. Ultimately I was disappointed that I didn’t enjoy them more as I know from first-hand experience what very decent blokes Isaac Delahaye and Ariën van Weesenbeek are.

It was left to Megadeth to get the ball rolling then, although my expectations were less than zero. Having been disgusted by Mustaine since he swapped drugs for religion – specifically his pathetic refusal to play on the same bills as Rotting Christ and Dissection, and getting them kicked off – I was completely done with his band. This extended to the point that even I refused free tickets to one of their gigs a few years back. No, as far I was concerned, Mustaine would not be getting another penny or ounce of support from me to aide his ridiculous ways. This intention went somewhat up in flames when the Big Four happened, and again now of course. Resigned to this, I was approaching their set today as more of a neutral/disinterested bystander than anything else. All of which is a shame considering how much Megadeth meant to me as a kid, and how, a little over twenty years ago to the day they were the standout act supporting Metallica at my first ever concert in 1993.

Hitting the stage to a chorus of support, the band launched into ‘Trust’, from their era of decline. Feeling somewhat smug, there I was thinking that this was going to be pants. But how wrong I was. ‘Hangar 18’ proved how musically accurate the current band are, and was the beginning of my spiritual journey back to a time when Megadeth were important. From that to ‘Countdown to Extinction’ and ‘Sweating Bullets’, my shattered voice did its best to emulate Mustaine’s sarcastic sneers. Even the first of two new tracks, ‘King Maker’, managed to impress. And in fact it wasn’t until the second new one – whose name I didn’t catch – that things briefly nose-dived. Like an extension of the radio-friendly desperation they exhibited on ‘Cryptic Writings’ and the abomination ‘Risk’, this composition had all the appeal of stale fart in a lift – especially when juxtaposed with the likes of ‘Symphony of Destruction’ and ‘Peace Sells…’. Unsurprisingly, as I have come to expect since living near France, the greatest crowd excitement of all was reserved for the chorus of ‘A Tout Le Monde’. A defiant (and somewhat ironic?) ‘Holy Wars’ ended the set.

All I can say is fair play to Megadeth for continuing to execute the classics with such conviction. Even though I still won’t be buying anything by them ever again, they did admittedly conjure the goods and, more importantly, warmed the crowd up in appropriate fashion for Maiden. In the meantime, there was just the small matter of Children Of Bodom to contend with over on the second stage. For me it was another case of a band, perhaps like In Flames, who I’ve never really bothered with. Okay, musical proficiency and past statements of intent might stand for something in such cases but when the music is as glossy as this, there’s always more constructive things I can be doing than standing in front of a stage consumed by thoughts of what an unenjoyable time I’m having. Beer time it was then… And before COB had finished, it seemed a reasonable idea to camp out near the main stage before the inevitable rush for Iron Maiden.

As ever, UFO being cranked over the PA was the cue for genuine excitement to rise and hairs to stand on end. When the band finally exploded on stage, it was naturally to the scenery of ‘Seventh Son…’ and the tune of ‘Moonchild’. The mandrake screamed, ‘Arry plucked like a fury, while two of the guitarists behaved like normal human beings and the other didn’t, seemingly having lost control of his spasmodic lower limbs. Back behind the kit, invisible from where I was standing, was Nicko whose precision drumming proved as irrepressible as ever. While the sound didn’t seem as pristine as it had been the day before – as was apparent during Megadeth’s set also – little could dampen the impact of ‘The Prisoner’ or ‘Two Minutes to Midnight’. Trying my best to emulate Dickinson’s air raid siren delivery, all I could muster was a load of out-of-tune, husky mess. Still, I don’t think anyone noticed, and by track five I was afforded a break from sing-a-longs with the totally inexplicable inclusion of ‘Afraid to Shoot Strangers’ to this reinterpretation of ‘Maiden England’. Call me a bore, but ‘Killers’ might have been a tad better…

The only interesting aspect to the 1992 track was the introduction delivered by Dickinson in very competent French. Although the content of his dialogue – relating this ‘Gulf War’ song to today’s ‘brave French and English soldiers’ operating in places like Mali – wasn’t really my cup of red wine, his ability to express himself en Français was quite impressive. Musically we really started to get down to the good stuff too, with the mandatory likes of ‘The Trooper’ and ‘The Number of the Beast’ rubbing shoulders with the less frequently played ‘Wasted Years’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera’. The latter was the standout inclusion as soon as I saw the setlist for this tour but somehow it’s as if my high expectations set me up for a slight tumble. Somehow the track just didn’t seem to sound as supremely tight as on record or as I would have envisaged it live. Possibly this can be attributed to ‘festival sound’ yet even so, it was still a thing to behold. Elsewhere, the ‘Seventh Son…’ contingent was bolstered with ‘The Clairvoyant’ and a rather peculiar rendition of the ‘heavy metal opera’ title track in which Bruce’s hair looked all set for Danzig’s upcoming Misfits shows.

As always, ‘Fear of the Dark’ elicited the greatest chorus of enthusiasm, while ‘Iron Maiden’ put an end to the main set. Arguably the best part of the night, an encore of ‘Aces High’, ‘The Evil That Men Do’ and ‘Running Free’, also coincided with a need to pee and the inevitable scramble to beat traffic. Sadly, the middle track proved to be the one I would sing along to from inside a dirty bog, while the latter was watched from the periphery of the ‘field’. No sooner had the dying notes of my finest (and not very good) Paul Di’Anno impression dispersed and it was time to storm back to the car. It goes without saying that Maiden were as much of a grand headliner as they have always been. Although I’ve seen them a few times now, their habit of modifying setlists for each tour does keep them interesting – especially when it’s one recalling the classic years, like this.

Following Maiden must be a more than daunting proposition but that’s exactly what Airbourne did as they ended Sonisphere 2013 in characteristic style on the second stage. First came the soundtrack from ‘The Terminator’ and then an immaculate blast of booze-fuelled Aussie hard rock at its finest. Sadly, this was all I heard of them as their decibels faded in the distance…

Overall, this year’s edition of the French Sonisphere had the best bill so far – despite the repellent likes of L**p B****t – and demonstrated a clear attempt to improve the organisation of the festival as a whole. Although the sign-posting to the venue was still abysmal, parking a complete joke and one set of toilets for 55,000 people even more so, it’s likely that such issues will be ironed out in future editions.

I suppose the big question after seeing the likes of Motörhead, Slayer, Megadeth and especially Maiden is this: just how many more of these big festival experiences are left for the likes of me? While I would take a club gig any day, I have the sense that once all these great stalwarts of the metal landscape are gone, only then will I appreciate (and miss) all the good times I’ve enjoyed at places like Donnington, Milton Keynes and Amnéville. I guess the moral of this line of thought, as emphasised so brutally by Hanneman’s unexpected demise, is: appreciate what you’ve got while it’s still here. This weekend I most certainly did.

(Review and beer drunk by Jamie Wilson)