The highs and lows of this year's Sonisphere, from a muddy field in Knebworth, in WhatCulture's comprehensive festival retrospective...

Accusations will always follow Sonisphere festival - usually aimed from those most preposterously pretentious metal fans who frequent supposedly non-mainstream festivals like Bloodstock - that Sonisphere is little more than a sell-out event, aimed at watered-down metal fans of pop-edged bands who have long since let go their grip on creative integrity in favour of the almighty dollar. But 2011's fest boasted one of the most impressive line-ups rock festivals have seen for a good long while, thanks largely to the promise of the Big Four playing together on one stage in one glorious night, as well as talent from across almost every sub-genre of rock from pop-punk (Weezer, YouMeAtSix), to comedy-tinged re-imaginings (Hayseed Dixie, Richard Cheese) and the bona-fide megastars of Slipknot, Biffy Clyro And no matter what pigeon-hole those bands might fall into, a festival experience that includes so much breadth, and so much inclusive passion for music in general is a far better one than the incestuous claustrophobia of more self-consciously liminal festivals. So I say long live the touring festival, because what I experienced a couple of weekends ago - despite the rain, the mud and the occasionally moronic wankers - was a magical thing indeed. So, pull up a camping chair, pop a can of Tuborg and join us as we revisit the highs and lows of Sonisphere 2011. Friday: The Big Four A three o'clock start for the bands meant another morning of heavy preparation, mostly out of plastic cups or directly from the can, which numbed the pain of the abysmal weather for a while at least until Diamond Head opened the festival on the Apollo Stage, in a slot that suggests as much about their importance to the formation of Thrash Metal's elite as it does about Metallica's personal fondness for the NWOBHM band. Without them, none of this would have been possible - as Lars Ulrich himself proclaimed later - but, this is no mere ceremonial inclusion, as the band ploughed through song after song, sounding better and more energetic than Megadeth for the most part, and rousing the crowd perfectly with the day's first appearance of iconic track "Am I Evil?" Without much of a pause, we were into Anthrax, the start-line proper for the Big Four event, and a fitting beginning, thanks to a focus on the 80s heyday material that reminds the gathered mega-crowd of their thrash metal royalty status in sublime fashion. The band - and Joey Belladonna in particular are in barn-storming form, despite the absence of talisman Scott Ian who is usually such a focal point, but who was necessarily otherwise detained by the birth of his first child with wife Pearl Aday, and proved a standard-setting opening for the historic reunion. Next up came Megadeth, who I personally would have put in the opening slot, because following an amped-up Anthrax was always going to be a Herculean task for a band who can blow hot and cold within the space of one gig. But, despite not being a fan, I was eventually silenced by Megadeth's technical prowess and Dave Mustaine's undeniable presence (even if I always feel he could step up his animation a little more to suit his reputation). What puts me off about them is usually Mustaine's vocals, which are usually the problem when things go wrong, but he offered a pretty strong showing that will probably be unfairly forgotten thanks to being sandwiched between two superior showings from Anthrax and the ever-blistering Slayer. And third out of four they came - fan favourites, and the pick of the three acts so far by some distance, Slayer don't know how to play a reserved gig. Their manifesto is coronary-bursting, bone-shattering brutality, even if their lead singer has just got over massive surgery and can't quite head-bang the way he used to, and they didn't disappoint, turning heads with their energy and stage-presence like few other bands can muster.

Others may argue, but it was always going to be about Metallica, and the heavy-weights didn't disappoint at all, swaggering through an extended, pyrotechnic-punctuated set; the air pregnant with insistent helicopter drumbeats, cut with screeching jaguar-snarl guitars to distract from the earlier rain. And as ever, they had the crowd on their side, the response buoyed by the familiarity of so many songs, and the band's decision to stick to largely pre-1990 material. That decision might have pissed off more modern fans, but it knitted them closer to the Big Four spirit when many might have expected them to consciously set themselves apart. One thing the band can never be accused of is laziness - they know, after years of successful tours, exactly how to play to a crowd, to make the sweating, heaving mass before them feel part of the experience beyond merely observing. It's for good reason they repeatedly called out the Metallica Family, because even those who were there for other bands - the hugely vocal, occasionally sneering Slayer fans who feel their bands position in the Big Four hierarchy belies their importance for instance - are quickly enveloped in. The moment that many (okay, maybe all) were waiting for arrived when Metallica were joined on stage by members of the other three bands, plus Diamond Head founder Brian Tatler (and fill-ins Andreas Kisser of Sepultura and Gary Holt of Exodus). Unsurprisingly, the invasion was met with roars from the crowd, which swelled when Mustaine and James Hetfield embraced enthusiastically (cynics might call it no more than showmanship of course), and which peaked during the Big Four Collective's version of "Am I Evil?" This was what we all signed up for, and it didn't disappoint - the footage of that song from the rest of the tour is already highly viewed, but it in no way devalues the experience, nor the bragging rights of being present at one of the historical moments of Heavy Metal. If Metallica brought the house down, it was left to a far less auspicious talent to pick it up. And in the shape of Hayseed Dixie, the festival organisers found the perfect antidote to the occasional and wholly acceptable self-important, po-faced grandeur of Metallica, who not only picked the house back up, but also dusted it off and handed it an over-flowing jug of the finest moonshine. The boys in dungarees who sing about ale, women, and ale blew the lid off the packed tent in their late-night slot (a feature of Sonisphere I love), introducing some of their own material - the beautifully odd love-song "Keeping Your Poop in a Jar" - with classic covers that got everyone singing back in response between bouts of chaotic, and obviously drunken barn-dancing. My own personal highlights were the ridiculously impressive version of "Duelling Banjos" and a spine-tingling re-imagining of "Bohemian Rhapsody". And for anyone who dismisses the band as no more than a comedy act, I'd urge you to reconsider, or at least go and see them live - their technical prowess is unbelievable and their on-stage enthusiasm breeds a massive, warm reaction from all audiences I've so far seen them gather.

WhatCulture's former COO, veteran writer and editor.