ROSS BAKER’S SONISPHERE
The opening day of Sonisphere was thrash day with the Big Four making their debut together on U.K. soil.
While British NWOBHM favourites Diamond Head opened the Apollo Stage, I opted instead to check out hip young Grungers Japanese Voyeurs who have drawn comparisons to Hole and Babes In Toyland. Fronted by the helium voiced Romily Alice, their brand of dirge pop is angular and takes some getting used to but you can’t deny the nastiness of the guitars that cut through the likes of “Get Hole” and “Milk Teeth”. While The ‘Voyeurs won’t please everyone, at least they stand out which is more than can be said for the tame melodic hardcore that Watford mob Lower Than Atlantis had to offer. Their uninspired bleatings mean it’s time to haul my way over to the Apollo stage to check out the first of the big four: the mighty Anthrax.
Yet it was clear that despite having new material on the way, the band were only firing on 50 percent of their game. Vocalist Joey Belladonna was not in the best of voice tonight, sounding somewhat hoarse in places and with guitarist Scott Ian absent due to attending the birth of his first child, the band lacks their usual stage presence. Sepultura man Andreas Kisser ably deputised for Ian, giving the band a much needed kick and although numbers like “Only” and catchy newbie “Fight ‘Em Till You Can’t” were strong contributions, the band lacked the power and cohesiveness you associate with these New Yorkers.
Thank God for Megadeth then who delivered the first memorable performance of the day with a set of blistering solos and melodic fretwork. Despite not being incredibly vocal between songs, Dave Mustaine and company rolled out an impressive set surprisingly opening with underrated hit “Trust”. The interplay between Mustaine and lead guitarist Chris Broderick is fantastic and with Shawn Drover’s tight playing behind the kit, this is the strongest line up the band has had since Messers Friedman and Menza were part of Megadeth. New track “Public Enemy No.1” is unleashed before the sing-a-long classic of “Á Tout Le Monde” and speed metal powerhouse “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” brings an end to a robust showing.
Slayer was even better with Exodus man Gary Holt replacing Jeff Hanneman while Hanneman continues his recovery from a bizarre flesh eating virus. Holt and Kerry King trade blistering solos and the band played a couple of surprise tracks namely “Dittohead” and satanic anthem “Black Magic”. Despite no longer being able to headbang, Tom Araya clearly still loves playing live, grinning from ear to ear and there appears to be plenty of life in the band despite the “by numbers” nature of their last album.
It was now time for one of Metal’s biggest ever acts to grace the stage once again. As the theme tune to “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” cranked up you could feel the anticipation in the audience and when Metallica threw down the opening one, two of “Hit The Lights” and “Master Of Puppets”, Knebworth was completely under their spell. Kirk Hammett’s solos send shivers down the spine and Lars Ulrich guns and thrashes away behind the drums like they insulted his family. Playing a greatest hits set spanning all of their albums ‘Tallica could do little wrong, however it would be nice to see them play a set without “Enter Sandman” for a change. The encore began with all the Big Four getting together for a rendition of Diamond Head’s “Am I Evil” with Diamond Head man Brian Tattler looking like the cat that got the cream. It was touching to see James Hetfield embrace old enemy Dave Mustaine showing they have buried the hatchet. Metallica signed off with a titanic “Creeping Death” sending the fans home happy and setting the bar extremely high for Saturday’s acts to follow.
Following Metallica, it was off to watch Killing Joke slay the Bohemia tent with their powerful post punk. Jaz Coleman remains as unbalanced as ever, giving their gigs the feeling of danger that most acts could only dream of with “Requiem” sounding massive. Following them were barn dance covers act Hayseed Dixie who, despite their initial charm, failed to lure many of the audience away from the beer tent.
Saturday saw Pop Punk kings Bad Religion deliver a strong set on the Apollo stage which kept the crowd’s spirits up, despite the arrival of a few showers but band of the night honours went to British Djent metallers Tesseract who produced a blinder of a performance in a packed Bohemia tent which should have won them a fair few new fans. Miss them on their September tour at your peril. Likewise their former tour mates Periphery delivered a powerful set of prog metal demonstrating that the U.K. is starting to produce some extremely interesting newcomers who should give the American acts a run for their money.
Over on the Jägermeister stage Slam Cartel put on an accomplished showing with some soaring choruses and powerful guitars. Opening with a cover of Talking Heads “Once In A Lifetime” was a bold move but this is an act you should be hearing a lot more from in the future.
One disappointment on Saturday was Gojira. Not the band themselves but the jobsworth security who were trying not to let people in when there was clearly adequate capacity within the Bohemia tent. Gojira may have been packed but there were plenty of other occasions when this approach was adopted which seemed farcical. While the band sounded decent, it was time instead to catch up with The Mars Volta who were in an indulgent mood. M.A. can be hit and miss live when they are in full jazz rock freak-out mode. Although they can be engrossing, there were moments of chin-stroking indulgence this time around.
One band that demonstrated showmanship as well as heaviness were Norwegian black metallers Watain who put on a powerful performance on the Bohemia stage full of fire and blastbeats. As well as being the most extreme band on the bill they were up there with the most entertaining. They certainly gave punters something more powerful to digest rather than the pop rock of Biffy Clyro over on the Apollo stage.
Sunday was back to being a wall to wall rush between bands, starting with a roaring set by Arch Enemy on the Apollo stage. Having failed to really impress on their last couple of outings, A.E. curtailed the guitar histrionics to deliver an aggressive set of melodic death metal.
Likewise Mastodon proved to be an ever evolving beast with numbers from “Crack The Skye” sounding huge. The problem is that they had a tendency to allow their indulgent side to rear its head more times than necessary with some lengthy wig-out sections when you wished they would just have exercised their thunderous power and taken the direct approach a bit more often.
Following a touching two minute silence to commemorate the passing of Slipknot’s Paul Gray, it was up to In Flames to lighten the mood. The Swedes deliver a decent set without being spectacular. When they’re on their game they are fantastic but numbers like “The Quiet Place” with its whiny clean vocals pale in comparison to the likes of “Trigger” and the soaring “Take This Life”.
Aussies Airbourne are much more fun. Joel O’Keeffe did his usual climb to the top of the stage soloing effortlessly from atop the Saturn stage and hedonistic numbers like “Cheap Wine and Cheaper Women” and “Stand Up For Rock ‘N’ Roll” are the perfect soundtrack to partying in the sunshine!
This was still better than the below par performance turned out by Mötörhead. Lemmy looked unwell onstage which was no surprise considering the tragic passing of former ‘Head guitarist Würzel the night before. While they ran through their numbers and held it together, it was clear Lemmy was understandably distracted looking and appeared to be feeling the effects of a heavy night.
Back on the Saturn stage, Opeth put in another mighty shift with the charming Mikael Åkerfeldt getting the audience to headbang to silence which was hilarious. From the delicate “Face Of Melinda” to the brutality of “Masters Apprentice” they held Knebworth in the palm of their hands. It’s a wonder a progressive and heavy act like Opeth have such a mass appeal nowadays but if anyone deserves it they do.
Instead of hitting the frat boy nonsense that was Limp Bizkit’s set it was over to comedic genius Bill Bailey who proved a breath of fresh air even though the weather was against us again. It was touching to see the audience laughing hysterically then pogo-ing like a herd of Kangaroos to songs about supermarkets and his cover of “Scarborough Fair” in the style of Rammstein was fantastic. More please.
That left Slipknot the task of closing the weekend playing a set which lent heavily on their eponymous debut. The Iowa wrecking crew were in top form with vocalist Corey Taylor calling their set “a celebration” in tribute to the late Paul Gray. Wearing their original red boiler suits, this was a nostalgic but relevant performance from one of metal’s most talked about acts. Love them or hate them, you couldn’t deny they put on a hell of a show. “Purity” “Duality” and “Surfacing” were scathing assaults on the senses and it was genuinely touching to see the reaction when Gray’s mask and boiler suit were placed onstage with the band. Let’s hope that, contrary to rumours, this is not the last we see of these masked lunatics. A powerful and exciting way to close a very memorable festival.
Ross Baker talks to Chickenfoot and Ex Van Halen Frontman Sammy Hagar
Former Van Halen vocalist and frontman of Rock Supergroup Chickenfoot is an interesting character. On a mobile phone from Los Angeles while he is journeying to L.A.X. airport in order to travel to Detroit, Michigan to play a stadium show with Kid Rock, he is pleasant but extremely honest not mincing his words when quizzed on any topic and quite unafraid to speak his mind.
First up I asked about the recording of forthcoming second album “Chickenfoot” and how it differed from recording the debut. “We have an identity now and can relate to each other’s playing better” Hagar mused. “We know exactly how each other works and writes while on the debut we were still feeling each other out. The guys know how I work as a vocalist and how I write and it comes together very naturally. A lot of the songs were written and finished before I had any lyrics. The songs “Different Devil” and “Bigfoot” were the last songs I had written for the record and they took awhile because I wanted to have really great lyrics. There is some very personal stuff on this album but there is also some really fun stuff too. The first single “Bigfoot” is a great song but for me it’s the weakest song on the album. Not that it’s a weak song, it’s a real rocker but there are some amazing songs on there. I think “Up Next” is fantastic and “Come Closer” is very emotive. It was great to do a song like that which was a bit different for us!”
During the interview there were a few signal issues possibly due to Sammy checking into the airport at the time of the interview yet even though Hagar was clearly on a tight schedule, it didn’t reflect in his demeanour. Speaking of touring, I enquired about the band’s situation regarding who would be behind the kit when Chad Smith is away with The Red Hot Chilli Peppers. “Well we just did a video for “Bigfoot” with Kenny Aronoff (An acclaimed session drummer who has played with everyone from The Smashing Pumpkins to Elton John) and he’s Chad’s choice so he’s the guy we are most comfortable with at the moment so it could be him but that could change. We have auditioned a bunch of different drummers and we are yet to settle on a definite replacement for the touring cycle but Kenny’s top of the list.”
On the subject of touring, I asked Sammy when we could expect Chickenfoot to return to our shores. “We are aiming to tour the U.K. early next year in late spring which I’m looking forward to. We have such a blast when we play there because of the energy of the audience. I had a chest infection which nearly became pneumonia last time we toured Britain but all the shows were awesome, London especially.”
When the Red Rocker is not on the road or recording, Hagar has also found success marketing his own brand of tequila something he clearly enjoys doing. Does Sammy ever consider taking a break from touring so much to concentrate on his other projects? “Absolutely not I enjoy playing live and still enjoy being on tour. I am in a privileged position where if I don’t want to do something I don’t have to do it as financially it’s not a problem which is a great freedom to have.”
As far back as last October, reports appeared of Joe Satriani and Hagar being quoted as saying the album was called “Chickenfoot Four” and a number of different song titles were mentioned that don’t show up on the album. Were the guys having a bit of fun with the media at the time? “We were changing the song titles a lot because I was changing the lyrics and wanted to make them great. We had some fun but I wanted to make songs that had a meaning. This is my main band and I’m really serious about doing this stuff.”
“Chickenfoot III” is a very youthful sounding record with a lot of energy. While the up tempo party anthems are in place, one track that draws you in is the raw and emotional “Three and A Half Letters”. Hagar explained “I receive a lot of mail that comes to the office and my manager puts a few letters aside and the lyrics are all directly taken from them. One particular letter that got me was a guy who had just returned from serving in Afghanistan who’s coming home to his wife and children and has no job and has to move in with his wife’s parents because there is no work for him! This story really affected me and I wanted to help and raise awareness about this, so I put it in the song. If I can help these people, I will and I’ll reach out to them but I thought it was important people know what’s going on in these people’s lives and the effect the economy is having on people!”
It’s at this time Hagar arrives at the airport security which means we have to take a break for fifteen minutes before I call back. When I do, we get onto the subject of what Hagar has planned in between Chickenfoot activity while Guitarist Joe Satriani is doing his own shows and Smith is away with The Chilli Peppers. “I still have my backing band, The Waboritas, and we will go out and do shows like this one in Michigan tonight and I have my tequila business so I’m always busy. I keep my band fully paid even when we are not on tour so we can get together whenever I need them. If anything now I have more choice because I don’t have to agree to do anything I don’t want to do! The tequila business is great and allows me something to focus on outside of music and when I’m doing my solo shows with The Waboritas we go out drink tequila and have a great time! Chickenfoot is my main baby, my serious band and playing with these guys fills the void that Van Halen left!”
Of course when speaking to Sammy the topic of Van Halen is always going to be interesting. Following a bust up in 2004 when Van Halen were touring with Hagar supporting the double CD greatest hits album “The Best Of Both Worlds”, Eddie Van Halen’s drinking caused tension between the band members so much so that Hagar had to travel in a separate jet from the rest of the band. What raised the ire of Hagar just as much, if not more, was the Van Halens’ treatment of Michael Anthony as Eddie Van Halen wrote and recorded the bass parts himself to specifically exclude Michael Anthony from the three new tracks on the aforementioned best of CD, even though he was still officially a band member. The troubles finally came to a head after a show in Tucson, Arizona when Eddie smashed his guitar, sending shrapnel into the audience.
Although Hagar mentioned in his recent autobiography that Eddie “wasn’t the same person anymore”, I wondered if Sammy had any relationship with the Van Halens at this point. “No, none of them. I think when Eddie threw Mikey out of the band that was it for me. They are not friendly people, team players or family. I don’t know what they want from life or what’s important to them but it’s not listening to other human beings. I read they just cancelled their Australian tour they were due to start next week but they cancelled it and they cancelled the American tour they were booking for January and the new album, which was supposed to be announced last month, has been postponed indefinitely but that’s the Van Halen camp and if they can’t seem to get it together, I’m not interested in sitting around and waiting for those guys to get their act together. Those guys owe their fans a record, a tour and an apology for all that they’ve done but I just can’t see it. I’m not interested in them. I will publicly state “fuck those guys”! Especially for what they did to Mike, Fuck those guys.”
Clearly time hasn’t healed the rift between Hagar, Anthony and The Van Halen camp but Hagar is positive as far as his own future is concerned. “Playing my old catalogue with the Montrose songs and the Van Halen numbers with my solo band is all fine and dandy but Chickenfoot is the most important thing. In Van Halen it was all about four individuals getting together and trying to stretch themselves and I miss that from Van Halen but there is no question about it; man for man Chickenfoot is the greatest band that I have ever been in!”
INTERVIEW WITH DREAM THEATER
Ross Baker talks to Keyboard Maestro Jordan Ruddess about line up changes, virtuoso musicianship and the future of this band of master musicians.
Sat in the press area at High Voltage festival, Dream Theater keyboard player Jordan Ruddess cuts an unassuming figure. While a mild mannered individual, he is clearly intensely passionate when it comes to the subject of his band’s music and takes his role very seriously.
Straight off the bat, I ask the keyboardist about the writing process for the forthcoming new opus, their eleventh studio album “A Dramatic Turn Of Events” and what was different since the departure of drummer and songwriter Mike Portnoy. “It was really important for us to make an album that was a strong statement because of everything that happened with Mike leaving the band. We wanted to come out of this really positively and show the world that we could handle this.”
The new D.T. record is certainly as challenging musically as it was to make, sprawling technical guitar parts with oodles of orchestration which embellish the complex arrangements. It’s a grandiose recording.
At any point when writing music do the band ever eschew an idea if they feel it isn’t technical or complex enough? “There are lots of elements to that. If we can create something where we are all smiling then that’s the most important thing. One of the things that have helped us a lot on this album is that previously Mike Portnoy and John Petrucci produced the album together but this time John produced it alone. John really came to the table and guided us. He took on the producer’s role which made us feel really positive. This made it easy for John and I as the core composers of Dream Theater to write. The other guys also contributed to the writing a lot more. John Myung contributed more than he has since he joined the band which was amazing. The other thing that changed a lot was we weren’t writing with a drummer. Mike Mangini is a great drummer but we wanted to work on this album by ourselves before bringing Mike in to the writing process. Mike has brought a new energy to the band which is very exciting.”
Since Mangini wasn’t involved in the writing process, I wondered what the biggest change had been for the group since Portnoy’s departure. “Mike is a very nice happy guy. He just wants to play the drums to the best of his ability. He doesn’t pretend to have all the overall skills that Mike Portnoy did outside of being a drummer. Portnoy did a lot of good things for us but Mike is one of the very best drummers on the planet earth! Playing onstage with Mike is awesome; it has changed the dynamic of the band. He’s as solid as a rock! We have been so happy as the people who have seen us live have gone crazy for us! He’s added a new element to our organisation!”
While it’s good to see that D.T. feel rejuvenated on their 11th record and the band members are regularly nominated for best musician awards I asked if the band had ever felt any pressure due to being labelled a virtuoso musicians’ band.
“The two Johns and I are completely about trying to be the best at our instruments. Not for the sake of looking cool but just the internal desire to be the best. Mike Mangini has joined us on this quest which is great. We love writing fast riffs and technical patterns but we all love a good melody and are unafraid to slow things down. I come from a classical piano background and still love that. We have worked with people like Steven Wilson from Porcupine Tree and I understand the dynamics and the energy level of a lot of types of music. I think the difference between Dream Theater and other bands that want to be like us is we are unafraid to be melodic and slow things down. It’s important for us to have a really good technique on our instruments but it’s important to get a balance.”
Following the release of “A Dramatic Turn Of Events” in September, Dream Theater will be embarking on another lengthy world tour. Considering how passionate the band are about writing music, how do they keep things fresh and interesting for themselves and what do they do to wind down when they aren’t creating music or performing? “I really love going out and playing live to share the music with people and also love being surrounded by my synthesisers in the studio. They are very different things but I love both equally. We have a lot of work to do on our instruments but I like to go for long walks and check out local cultures, John Petrucci goes to the gym and lifts things, John Myung has his meditation and Mike Mangini loves his cigars and a bottle of red!” he chuckled.
Since the creative process has changed so much with other members taking part in the writing process, I wanted to know if Jordan saw Mike becoming involved in writing and where does Jordan see the next step in the band’s evolution taking them?
“I’m sure Mike Mangini will contribute more to the band and influence us compositionally. We didn’t want to bring him in as a composer straight away and we are still learning about him but we knew he could do this gig. He’s upped all our games. He’s been a professor at Berkeley School of Music for years and has taught us a lot more about rhythm. He is certainly going to be an influence on writing. I don’t know what the future holds but I’m so excited!”
“For the fans we have had for so many years, we want them to see how the band has worked hard to create a great record and get a high quality Dream Theater experience. Some people will miss the experiments we did with the growly style of metal but there are lots of other bands that do that. This album is about being harmonic and melodic and I think has all the things that make this band great. Musically I’m into a lot of electronic music as well as classical and stuff like Porcupine Tree and Sigur Ros. I listen to things that are more mellow than things I’m involved with professionally. I still love my old Gentle Giant records and King Crimson stuff too.”
While Jordan might take inspiration from a lot of non metal artists these days, there are still some heavy guitar parts on the new album that should satisfy the band’s devoted fanbase. Clearly “A Dramatic Turn Of Events” will mark an interesting new chapter for this band of master musos.
Considering the upheaval the band has been through, it’s encouraging seeing them overcoming a difficult phase in their career and refocus on planning for a future without their influential former sticksman. Following the completion of touring the U.S., the band plan to return to Europe in the New Year for more shows by which time fans will have had the chance to familiarise themselves with the new material. This is something Jordan is relishing “We can’t wait to come back and give the fans an awesome show and we are very happy with where we are at musically right now. It’s a bright new day for us and we can’t wait to share it with our fans!”