The 10 Biggest And Best Sets Of Soundwave Festival

For over a decade, Soundwave delivered some of the most phenomenal live music Australia had ever seen.

soundwave best sets photo

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It began with little more than some skate demos and pop-punk bands in Perth. It emerged as a national festival conglomerate that rivalled the giants, and eventually overtook them. It ended in a blaze of multi-million-dollar debts and Twitter meltdowns.

From the late 2000s to the mid-2010s, Soundwave was a dominant force of the Australian festival circuit, routinely boasting line-ups that were of international envy. With arena-filling megastars on the marquee and cult figures filling out the fine print, each exhausting 10-hour day was a choose-your-own-adventure of windmills, moshpits and all-in sing-alongs.

To quote a man involved with a different festival that went tits-up, Ja Rule: “We been through the worst times, and the best time/But it was our time, even if it was part-time.”

For every story of sun-stroke and five-dollar water bottles, there’s a myriad of tales to be told of game-changing performances by some of the best in heavy and alternative music across the last 20 years. Five years removed from the festival announcing its end, let’s reflect (in alphabetical order) on some of the festival’s finest moments — that is, if we can get in on time through this bottleneck queue…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS: Jimmy Eat World in 2010 and 2014, Minus the Bear in 2009, Incubus in 2008 and 2015, Queens of the Stone Age in 2011, Judas Priest in 2015, City and Colour in 2008, letlive. in 2014, The Fall of Troy in 2008, Gang of Four in 2011, Soundgarden in 2015, Jane’s Addiction in 2010.

SUPER HONOURABLE MENTION: The time that former triple j presenter Andrew Haug had to walk out on the metal stage in Sydney and inform the audience that Tom Araya had lost his voice and Slayer had to cancel their set for the evening — which made one guy so mad he tried to set his shirt on fire. Not a joke.

Alexisonfire (2008)

Sometimes, Australia has been able to capture the right act at the right time: Nirvana at the first Big Day Out in 1992, Franz Ferdinand at Splendour in 2004, Billie Eilish at Groovin The Moo in 2019.

While post-hardcore veterans Alexisonfire weren’t exactly part of the zeitgeist in early 2008 — they were coming to the end of an 18-month world tour in support of their third (and best) album Crisis — the Canadians had reached a level in Australia that justified their spot on the main stage amidst giants like The Offspring and Incubus. On this run, they tore through their best cuts in an all-killer-no-filler festival slot most bands of their calibre would kill for. “This is from our hearts,” screamed Wade MacNeil on ‘Drunks, Lovers, Sinners and Saints’. The love the audience gave in return was palpable.

The Chariot (2013)

Soundwave 2013 was, to this day, the biggest and most ridiculous one-day festival Australia has ever put on. Metallica and Linkin Park here, The Offspring and Paramore there, Blink-182 to your left, Cypress Hill to your right.

So, who were the festival’s true heroes? Surprisingly, none of the above. On a small side-stage, just after 9pm, cult metalcore band The Chariot played three times the show to maybe an eighth of the rival stage’s audiences. Those that witnessed the band in full flight saw their caustic, raucous take on the genre tear through both the stage and the speakers — culminating in guitarist Stephen Harrison climbing the lighting rig on stage right and throwing his axe some five metres down onto the concrete. By year’s end, The Chariot were gone. In amidst the chaos, they made a moment of magic.

Faith No More (2010 and 2015)

Even in the years that Faith No More were… well, no more… you couldn’t keep Mike Patton far from Australian stages. Between Mr. Bungle, Fantômas, Tomahawk and Peeping Tom, the six-octave frontman kept up his ongoing love affair with the country partially responsible for elevating his quote-unquote main band to megastars.

When the band who cared a lot inevitably reunited, the red carpet was rolled out for two separate headlining slots at Soundwave. An inter-generational affair, as many great festival sets are, the shows brought together both Gen Xers reliving their teens and millennials who were too young to see them the first time around. 2010 brought a blend of ’90s nostalgia and a then-current obsession with Chatroulette (time flies, huh?), while 2015 brought all the hits plus their first new material in nearly 20 years, Sol Invictus. Both certifiably killed.

Gallows (2010)

With the irrepressible Frank Carter at the helm, UK hardcore miscreants Gallows were at their best when antagonistic and sabotaging the proverbial machine from inside it. Their maiden voyage in Australia for Taste Of Chaos, for instance, saw the band booed by scene kids awaiting The Used.

That hostility remained for their 2010 return in support of masterpiece Grey Britain, which was met with utter disapproval from stage neighbours awaiting You Me At Six. From Carter’s commanding on-stage (and off) presence to the raging setlist including ‘Misery’ and ‘Orchestra of Wolves’, Gallows made ample use of their time — fitting, given it was Carter’s final tour with Gallows before his 2011 departure.

Loud, rousing, entirely unapologetic — exactly what you’d hope for punks of their pedigree. A 2013 return with Wade MacNeil was solid, but not nearly as threatening.

Le Butcherettes (2015)

As Soundwave got bigger, bands would often throw in their own bargaining chips. In 2014, Green Day headlined while also getting Billie Joe Armstrong’s son’s band Emily’s Army booked the following year. Similarly, when Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s then-new project Antemasque was engaged they brought Mexican garage-punk weirdos Le Butcherettes (featuring Omar’s younger brother Riko) as a package deal.

This ultimately might have been a mistake, however, as the artful band out-performed Antemasque that weekend — along with nearly every other band on the bill. With the intense Teri Gender Bender fronting them, their frenetic energy and unique blend of genres allowed them to stand out clearly in a wash of cis-white-het-core bands. Sure, their audience may have been comparatively small when pitted against giants like Slash and the Smashing Pumpkins. The set itself, however? All-encompassing and world-class.

Melvins, The Bronx and Fucked Up (2011)

Speaking of package deals: This entry is about teamwork overcoming adversity. These three loud, heavy bands had the bigger acts working against them — Iron Maiden were scheduled to headline at the same time, while an arrogant Rob Zombie went over his time slot and cut into the Melvins’.

As soon as Buzz and co. got the green light, however, it was a non-stop assault enough to make you question “Bruce who?” The double-drum assault of the Melvins turned heads before promptly banging them in time, before honorary Aussies The Bronx cut to the chase with their cutthroat punk. Bringing it home were cult heroes Fucked Up, months away from releasing their modern classic David Comes to Life, sending the devoted few that remained at day’s end home with a hugely memorable tear-through of their high-concept progressive hardcore. A triple-pronged, maiden-slaying beast.

Nine Inch Nails (2009)

Prior to Soundwave’s 2009 edition, NIN previously headlined two infamous Australian festivals: 1995’s one-off Alternative Nation and the 2000 Big Day Out.

Both captured the band at zeitgeist-like moments in their career, but their appearance at Soundwave was a testament to their longevity. Age-old angst anthems like ‘Head Like a Hole’ and ‘March of the Pigs’ still held their own after 20 and 15 years respectively, while more recent material like the explosive “1,000,000” and ‘Survivalism’ went pound-for-pound with the classics.

A new touring line-up, too — including wunderkind Ilan Rubin on drums — allowed for new life to be breathed into the band’s live presence. Closing with a wrought ‘Hurt’, those raised on the original sung as loudly as those raised on the Johnny Cash version. Something real, something true — Nine Inch Nails are the perfect festival band.

Rival Schools (2009)

One benefit of Soundwave primarily booking international bands over Australians was getting the chance to see bands that otherwise would have had next to no chance of touring the country on their own accord. Hey, there’s This Town Needs Guns! Wow, there’s Gang of Four! Holy shit, Third Eye Blind are still a band?

One of the more interesting acts plucked from obscurity early on in Soundwave’s run was Rival Schools, the alt-rock vehicle for Quicksand frontman Walter Schreifels that never played Australia in their initial time together. It was nothing short of thrilling to tick off seeing most of the band’s seminal United by Fate played in the flesh — particularly ‘Used for Glue’, which forever remains one of the best rock songs of the 2000s. A fleeting, perfect moment.

Slipknot (2012 and 2015)

The 2010s were times of turbulence for Iowa’s prime cultural export. The tragic loss of bassist Paul Gray in 2010, followed by the departure of founding drummer Joey Jordison three years later, meant Slipknot had to reassess, recalibrate and ultimately reinvent in the face of adversity.

Their two visits to Australia as part of Soundwave reflect this development — 2012 being their first since Gray’s passing, and 2015 being in support of their excellent .5: The Gray Chapter. The former was watching, in real-time, one of the biggest bands in the world navigate their way through being a band again. The latter, with a new rhythm section officially in tow, saw them assert their place back at the top 15 years after their debut album. They were saturated in revelry and spectacle, but also driven by raw emotion and grief.

Trash Talk (2014)

Unsuspecting punters grabbing lunch at Soundwave 2014 would have been properly surprised when a couple hundred wild-eyed punks came charging out from the indoor stage — lead by the most wild-eyed of them all, wielding a microphone and screaming to distant sounds of downtuned guitars and D-beat drums.

This was just one of the many stunts pulled by Spencer Pollard and his band, Sacramento thrashcore veterans Trash Talk, during a brief but explosive appearance. If you know anything about the band, you know they live and die by their live shows — taking no prisoners and going all-in from the first guitar ringing out.

If you don’t know anything about them, it makes seeing them in the throes of a festival all the more exciting — imagine your first encounter with a band is them literally running full-force at you.

David James Young is a writer and podcaster who attended Soundwave from ages 17 to 24. Just a reminder: If your favourite band or favourite set isn’t on here, remember that this was written by one person who statistically couldn’t see every set by every band that ever played. Ahh, who are we kidding — you’re not reading this anyway, you’re already angrily wording a Facebook comment. Carry on.

Photo Credit: Teri Gender Bender by Xavi Torrent/Redferns, Trent Reznor by Han Myung-Gu/WireImage