Avant-Garde Epiphanies In Tilburg: Roadburn 2011 Reviewed
, April 22nd, 2011 09:14
Jamie Thomson reports back on the finest that this year's Roadburn festival had to offer, from Swans to Sunn O))) and Godflesh to Ghost. Photo by Richard Sheppard
Once a year, the cream of the world's avant-garde, experimental, drone and doom bands converge on a small town in southern Holland under the guise of the Roadburn festival. Even by the organiser's own high standards, this year's line-up was bursting at the seams with big hitters. Having negotiated a 130-mile cycle journey to get here from London (which I will document at a later date), I was here to navigate a festival bill about to buckle under the weight of its own heaviosity, and one that threw up some interesting dilemmas (Pentagram vs Circle; Earth vs Corrosion of Conformity; drinking all night vs a decent sleep for once). Here's how I fared.
Alcest's album Ecailles De Lune was one of my favourite records of 2010, so I was determined to kick off the festival on a high. Ethereal and dreamlike, this was shoegaze black metal with the emphasis firmly on the shoey – only towards the end of the set did they unleash the blast beats that drag their drowsy invocations into darker territories. Niege - Alcest's creative force - and his backing band may have been slightly intimidated by the vast expanses of the main arena, but it barely showed when they really let rip. Anyway, Roadburn had just started, and I was in far too good a mood to start splitting hairs.
As well as residing at the 013, a remarkable venue with three perfectly soundproofed and perfect sounding rooms, from the 3,000 capacity main arena to the tiny Bat Cave up in the heavens, Roadburn - for the last two years - has spilled over into the Midi theatre a street away. It was here, appropriately nestled beside the spectacular two-spired church in Tilburg's main square, where I discovered my new favourite band. Ghost's psyche-pop take on the high-camp satanism of early Mercyful Fate, adorned with huge hook-laden choruses, performed by a group of cowl-laden masked monks and sung by a dead pope with skullface makeup, was utterly irresistible. And remarkably, they passed what I indelicately call the "piss test". Despite the call of nature requiring ever more urgent attention as the set went on, I steadfastly refused to miss a second, something me and my kidney specialist will no doubt have a good chat about in the future. "The last time I did that," I told friends afterwards, "was when Wino and Spirit Caravan did a bunch of Obsessed covers about seven or eight years ago. I think everyone was wondering why I was dancing so strangely by the end." But, here, only hours into the fest, the piss test had a new champion.
Back at the 013, Wovenhand gave what people described as a "lifechanging" performance – I can only guess at the veracity of that statement, as I'd already had my life changed by David Eugene Edwards some years ago. However, it was a glorious thing to hear his sultry, southern-fried madrigals fill the arena, watched with total awe by a rapt audience. And for a man that seems to bear his burdens so heavily, it was a surprise to see how joyous he was. On more than one occasion he started chanting some spiritual invocation, only to bat it away with the flick of a wrist and a "Tsk. Oh you!" expression on his face. Praise be, indeed.
Onwards, then, to Pentagram. The audience was in raptures and rightly so. Half the bands at this festival wouldn't even exist if it wasn't for their many years of ploughing a lonely furrow of satanic rock & roll. And this was a far more professional, complete performance than some may have feared, given reports of several fairly shambolic outings in the last few years. But there's only so many times you can watch frontman Bobby Leibling (a true rock legend of fairly advanced vintage) dance up to his guitarist like a swaying Glasgow jakey approaching an unsuspecting busker before the occasion loses its lustre a little.
Back at the cutting edge, I had been told breathlessly by several of Circle's devotees (and they are hopelessly devoted, believe me) that I would be unlikely to experience anything like their majestic performances anywhere else. In a sense, they were absolutely right – their incessant, interminable post-rock guitar noodling tested my patience to breaking point, but just as I started to fight my way through to the throng to the exits, they would break out a giant, cosmic NWOBHM riff, and I'd be won over again. Stay there too long, though, and the noodling would begin again. Wander off to get a drink, and the gravitational pull of their immense riffs would drag you back inside. Clearly, Circle are the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of post rock – engaging with them fully only skews the results; sidle up to them slyly, and you get them in full bloom.
There was no such ambiguity with Godflesh, however. As they pummelled their way through a complete performance of Streetcleaner in the main theatre, the jackhammer drum machine and guitar crunch invoked more of a physical rather than emotional response – that response being: "Ouch". Rather than being dwarfed by the occasion, the image of Justin Broadrick and GC Green stood alone on the giant stage reflected perfectly their stark, tormented sound. And as thrilling to hear these songs on a scale that I couldn't possibly have imagined when I worshipped them as a moody teenager, I can't have been the only one that needed a wee sit down and a cold beverage after the ordeal – sorry, gig – was over.
If anyone knows how to get the party started, it's Place of Skulls and their St Vitus-influenced barrage of riffs. Although, as a Christian doom metal band, it's anyone's guess what that party might consist of, other than beards and guitars. Regardless, they were the right band to put a spring in people's step after the punishing end to yesterday's festivities. With no particular performance in mind, I decided to dip in and out of what was on offer. One of the great things about Roadburn is that you can walk from, say, the lumpen hardcore brutality of Trap Them to the outrageous space-rock wankery of a Circle/Pharaoh Overlord collaboration in a dozen or so paces. This time, my Heisenberg technique didn't work with Circle. No amount of sidling up or walking away was going to distract this lot from the serious business of having seven guitarists on stage, all lost in their own galaxies of improv hell.
On the bright side, this gave me a chance to compose myself and wait for Winter to roll around. Twenty or so years ago, the New York three-piece were more a myth than an actual group. They were the heaviest, slowest band on the planet, their records were impossible to find, and – save for sixth-generation tape copies that the uninitiated would insist were recorded at the wrong speed – pretty much only talked about rather than listened to. Thankfully, their records have been reissued, their seminal influence has spread, and here, they received their dues after being handpicked by Sunn O))) in their role as curators. Visually, they were not the most animated of performers, but nonetheless just hearing their songs at this volume, in a hall this size, was something special. They blazed the trail, and they deserve the accolades they got here – even if the praise was a couple of decades late.
The announcement of Corrosion of Conformity's addition to the bill was pretty much the clincher for me to make this trip – purely because this was the reunion of the lineup that produced a milestone in the American hardcore/metal crossover era, the Animosity LP. In hindsight, I should have realised that 'Animosity lineup' doesn't necessarily mean 'will only be playing Animosity and none of that new crap that you all hate'. And so, after tossing out pretty reasonable stabs at a couple of Animosity tracks, COC gave us the first real Spinal Tap "Jazz Odyssey" moment of the weekend – squandering the audience's goodwill, they chuntered through two dismal stabs at dirty southern rock which dragged on for what seemed close to half an hour. Even when they returned to the songs everyone wanted to hear, the new material's deadening effect smothered the occasion with a lethargy that only consolidated the steady exodus of disappointed fans. Broken hearted, I found solace next door in Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, whose smoky gothic country murmur held me in its comforting embrace.
Having seen Sunn O))) on more than a few occasions in the last couple of years, I wasn't sure if they were the automatic draw they might once have been, but the addition of Keiji Haino, who had played a solo set earlier in the day, made this unmissable. The Japanese noise artist's shrieks and ululations added a welcome counterpoint to Sunn O)))'s formidable wall of tone. In the world of Sunn O))), this was definitely a collector's item, but unlike the limited vinyl on sale at the merch stalls, not one that would go straight on eBay the next day.
Despite hurrying around the corner to catch Voivod at the 500-capacity Midi theatre, it was obvious I was far too late to get in, the venue longs since packed out. Crestfallen, I headed back and watch Scorn instead. Mick Harris's dark dub experiments gamely tested the vast PA's limits, but my mind was elsewhere. However, Voivod still had one more set to play. Tomorrow was another day.
If there is a criticism to levelled at Roadburn, it's that, with Tilburg not being a major metropolis, the logistics of housing all the bands and crew mean that local hotels are virtually impossible to come by for punters. Thus I spend the latter part of the weekend in nearby Eindhoven, commuting through by train at the beginning of each day. Sometimes this passed uneventfully with a pleasant 20-minute train ride, sometimes – through my own stupidity and inability to read Dutch – I'd get on the wrong train, and my journey would take considerably longer. With Candlemass given a hefty two-hour slot to perform their 1986 opus Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, you would think I'd have a fair amount of leeway to catch at least some of it. But no, harried and out of breath, I arrive at the venue to find the roadies dismantling Candlemass's drumkit at the end of their set. Bugger.
Consolation was found, however, in Weedeater's set. They may not win many plaudits for pushing the envelope with their stoner tropes, but their dirty riffs, blown-out sound and the hectic contortions of singer and bass player Dixie Dave, whose hyperactivity made him look like he'd been eating anything other than weed, made for a grand, grizzled spectacle. Later, Dave would down a bottle of Jack Daniels in about 15 minutes and then perform a backflip for the assembled bands and hangers-on backstage. The man is a born entertainer – more power to his elbow.
After missing Voivod the previous night, I felt slightly queasy in the run-up to their second appearance. Rumours abounded that they were to play a set made up of purely 80s material – the heyday of their lengthy sci-fi prog-thrash career. But they had played old songs the night before, too – were they going to do a COC on me and fart out some post-Angel Rat material? It was a needless concern - from their eponymous anthem 'Voivod' to 'The Unknown Knows' to an emotional dedication to their late guitarist and founding member Piggy during the cover of 'Astronomy Domine', this was grade-A nostalgia for the thrash generation, and a million miles away from the Corrosion debacle. Friends took great delight in telling me that they were even better in their first performance, but I didn't care. To have hoped for any more than they delivered here would have been greedy in the extreme.
On record, Shrinebuilder – the doom supergroup made up of Wino, Dale Crover, Neurosis's Scott Kelly and Om's Al Cisneros – created something that I felt fell short of the sum of their parts. And so it was in a live setting, too. I can't put my finger on it, but it's almost as if these giants of their respective domains cancelled each other out by their coming together. It probably didn't help that a large shadow was being cast, in my mind at least, by the headliners – and I was willing time ever onward until Swans took the stage.
Current-day Swans are a testament to the mindset that true heaviness need not necessarily come from ludicrously low guitar tunings and banks of vintage valve amps. No, all you need is a world-class array of musicians and percussionists, a preternatural understanding of the dynamics of sound and silence, and a band leader of the calibre of Michael Gira, whose imposing, charismatic presence had already been announced by his forays around the festival site, 10-gallon cowboy hat on head and cigar in hand.
The electrifying hush demanded as Gira, arms outstretched, cried: "Jesus! Jesus Christ! Come down! Come down to me!" during the climax of 'Sex, God, Sex'; the ringing beauty of the tubular bell-led melody of new composition 'Avatar'; even the peculiar theatre of Gira jerking across the stage like a demented David Byrne, shouting what for all the world sounded like: "Lady Gaga! Lady Gaga!" - all of this made for a show so totally arresting it verged on the transcendental. At one point a peculiar melancholy came over me. The joy at seeing something so remarkable gave way to a dread realisation: just as you are lost in the bliss of the now, that moment is already dead, and will never be recaptured, no matter how much you chase it. Metaphysical wrestling over the transient nature of time and existence in a beer-soaked rock venue? Yep, that's how fucking good Swans were.
With Roadburn proper finished, Afterburner is a scaled-down day for the diehards, the stragglers and the not-yet-burned-out. And while Spindrift's woozy 60s Morriccone-esque pop and Coffin's unrelenting barrage of doom provided the bookend to the weekend I was looking for, this is also a day for taking stock, and for bands and fans alike to congregate in nearby bars and swap war stories of gigs and tours past and present. Already on a high from reconnecting a friend who I'd last spoken to five or six years ago, I got talking to a seasoned road-dog stood next to me during a technically imposed lull in Coffins's otherwise impeccable set of driving, dirgey metal. After finding out I'm from Glasgow, he eulogises an "awesome weird little vegetarian place we played" a few years ago.
"The 13th Note?" I reply.
"Yeah, that was it. I played there when I was in Spirit Caravan."
"Holy shit! I was at that gig! That was an amazing night!" Much raising of glasses and general backslapping followed, but here, right in front of me, was the physical manifestation of the "piss test" story I'd been recounting at the start of the weekend. It's in moments like these that Roadburn becomes so special – the beautiful synchronicity that happens when like-minded acolytes come together in search of the same musical epiphany. That can surely take place at any big festival, you might say. Perhaps, but nowhere else have I experienced what I did at Roadburn. Never mind next year: I just want to relive 2011 again.