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Three Songs No Flash

How Lowland Can You Go? Things Learned At Roadburn
Jamie Thomson , July 19th, 2013 06:28

Between the beer, the bicycles and the cops, Jamie Thomson was lucky to make it back from Roadburn in the Netherlands in one piece. Here is his (possibly) final report from the festival

Pictures of NIHILL, Witchsorrow and Sigh courtesy of Jan Rijk

For fans of metal of the progressive, doomy or avant-garde variety, Roadburn is probably the best-run, best-programmed and best-sounding festival in the world. It's no accident that the relatively limited amount of tickets that go on sale each year sell out in minutes. And no matter how much the organisers expand its footprint, demand always outstrips their provisions to meet it. However, with unfettered access to cheap alcohol and all the other accoutrements hedonists demand from their festival experiences, there is a dark side to the Roadburn experience – and, strangely, a large proportion of it revolves around bicycles (or maybe that's just me.)

As such, after four attendances in the last five years, this could well be my last Roadburn. After genuflecting before the unholy trinity of alcohol, cycling and arguing with strangers, I might have become persona non grata in Holland, depending on the outcome of an imminent trial in Breda ( but more on that later). In the meantime, here's what else I've learned from my most recent trip to Tilburg.

Remember where you live

Beekse-Bergen Safari Park (a peculiar place where you are greeted at the gate by racist murals, and where the staff are dressed like Eugene Terre-Blanche, complete with South African flags on their uniforms), it's hard not to escape the feeling you've accidentally signed up for a white-separatist retreat. It is, however, the default accommodation for most Roadburn attendees, as the small number of hotel rooms available are taken up by the multitude of bands and their crews. When, on arrival, I snapped the key in my lock (one of the many signs that this year's jaunt was going end in tears), the staff came to fix it at the crack of dawn next morning. Being woken by what looked like, to my bleary eyes, two South African secret police operatives attempting to remove the lock on my door, had me scrambling to find my passbook until I remembered I'm not in the ANC and, as a paying guest, unlikely to be carted off to receive the Biko treatment in a basement somewhere. They did fix the door, however, which meant I could now lock it and would thus be less likely to repeat the farce of the previous evening. Returning from the shops, I let myself into the unlocked chalet, filled the fridge and cupboards with cheap beer and reconstituted potato snacks and turned the shower on. Undressing in the bedroom, I noticed the beds had not been made, and all my stuff was missing. What the fuck was going on? Had overzealous cleaning staff stripped the beds and thrown all my gear out? That seems a bit much - I'd only been gone 20 minutes, for Christ's sake! Wandering around in confusion, I noticed that the jetty on the lake that our patio looked out towards had shifted to the left by thirty or so feet. That's odd ... hang on, I'm in the wrong bloody house! I threw my clothes on and all my shopping into my rucksack and ducked out the patio doors, laughing like a loon. Thankfully, our neighbours hadn't arrived yet, otherwise I could have finally experienced that long-held dream of living in a low-budget 70s British sex comedy. Later that night, I would write: “I haven't even had a sip of beer yet. It doesn't bode well.” Indeed.

Sometimes you just have to believe the hype

Roadburn has always had pretty uncanny form when it comes to breaking bands – the most obvious example being Ghost in 2011. But, being the contrarian that I am, it's difficult not to fight against the tide of public opinion : “Yes, their records go for hundreds of pounds , but it's only their third ever gig – do you really think they're ready for the main stage?” I'd mutter in defiance of the hyperbolic anticipation of Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats appearance on the Friday.

And so often is the case here, my curmudgeonly expectations were swept away by something truly jaw-dropping. Amid a heady potage of psychedelic howls and slinky riffing, Uncle Acid and his band held the 013 rapt with the insouciance of hard-rocking veterans, but with none of the jadedness. The only thing that perhaps betrayed the band's lack of experience was the between-song banter – “Does anyone here do drugs? This song is about what happens when you take drugs” – which recalled Wattie from the Exploited at his inquisitive worst. Otherwise, it was as electrifying a festival debut as any band could hope for.

Goat were another band for whom a large part of the chatter in the surrounding bars was dedicated. So much so that their merchandise sold out hours before they were due to take the stage, and the queue at the not-inconsiderable Her Patronaat snaked down the cobbled backstreets long before the previous act had finished up, as harried bouncers tried to accommodate the crowd in on a one-in, one-out basis. “But it's just a bunch of Scandinavian dafties in silly hats noodling on guitars while two lassies dressed up as fancy-dress Moroccan princesses prance about, whipping each other with feather boas,” argued the nay-saying hemisphere of my brain. “Yes, but that's what makes it so bloody brilliant”, the more fun half would counter. And, yes indeed, they were unequivocally bloody brilliant. On a stage full of colour and cheer, about as far from the Roadburn uniform of facial hair and denim as you can get, the chanting duo that front this extraordinary band channelled the spirit of Josephine Baker with their synchronised dances while the guitarists, who were indeed sporting exotic headgear, explored the interzone where Afrobeat meets beardiest, weirdiest of 70s beardy-weirdy rock. Best of all, a young man dressed as a Bedouin sat stage-front and centre, occasionally playing his bongos, but mostly just staring off into the middle distance, dreaming, no doubt, of those balmy, sultry savannahs of northern Sweden. “Captain Beyond meets Haysi Fantayzee” was what I tweeted at the time, and I regarded that – and still do - as the most glorious, glowing appraisal I could articulate.

Compare and contrast – an exercise in lateral music enjoyment

A fun game to play at Roadburn is seeing just how far you can travel across the musical spectrum in just a few paces. Thus, climbing a flight of stairs can take you from the pummelling death march of Pilgrim to the subtle noise manipulations of Loop's Robert Hampson (so subtle, in fact, that I actually thought my phone was screwing up and making weird squawking noises as I was messaging a friend while stood outside at the beginning of his performance.) However, the finest juxtaposition was the Alcest-Antisect axis. In the main hall, you had French pastoral shoegaze at its swoony best (with the odd deathly scream to keep it anchored, just, on the metal side), referencing Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine and, on occasion, The Stone Roses' 'I Am The Resurrection'; only minutes later down the street, grim-faced 80s Britcore at its most political returned to the boil, venting its anger at another Tory assault on the least fortunate. And just in case the chants of “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Dead! Dead! Dead!” (in cheery response to the bass player's Still Hate Thatcher T-shirt) weren't enough to have visions of the Battle of Orgreave and the poll-tax riots swimming in your head, their backdrop was given over to a series of thoroughly enraging facts and figures, slogans and statements. Yes, the two worlds they created couldn't be more different – but as an example of Roadburn's yin-yang spirit, this was perfection.

Not just beard fun

I've previously written about the women who have rescued me from mediocrity elsewhere at Roadburn: Jesse Sykes healing the wounds left by Corrosion of Conformity in 2011; the chance encounter with the scarily engaging Chelsea Wolfe last year. However, my wife, never having been to Roadburn, will tell you that this festival (and almost any other I attend) is solely populated by bearded men in the audience watching other bearded men on stage. (This is a prejudice that wasn't helped by her reluctant attendance at the recent Rush gig at London's O2 Arena. I had reassured her that she might not be the only woman there. But when meeting her at the entrance before the show, she emerged, staring daggers at me, from a throng of balding, middle-aged men, looking all the world like someone who had accidentally stumbled upon a convention of sex tourists.)

This time around, though, there were so many female performers as to make highlighting the fact seem redundant and tokenistic (but I've started, so I'll finish). Watching Sweden's Blues Pills was like stepping into an alternate 1970s reality where Janis Joplin fronted Cream, while the eponymous frontwoman of Finland's Jess and the Ancient Ones possessed a soulful roar that took their psychedlic doom to Jefferson Airplane dimensions. And if you've ever wondered what Diamond Head would sound like with Exene Cervenka fronting them (and who among us can honestly say they've never pondered such a thing?), Castle answered this query with grace, style and power.

Of course, plenty of bearded chatter revolved around the erotic thrill of having Liz Buckingham of Electric Wizard brush past them in the bar once, but – you know – one step at a time.

If a band's worth seeing once...

As a journalist, you're occasionally granted the privilege of watching a band from the side of the stage rather than in the midst of the sweaty throng. This is cheating, and not particularly clever either, as not only are you missing out on what makes a gig a gig, the sound is often absolutely shite – mostly just drums, the occasional rumbling fart from a bass cabinet and no vocals at all. I did however grant myself dispensation to watch High On Fire's second set from this vantage point. They had already floored Roadburn on the first day with a run-through of their debut album, The Art of Self Defense, which filled the hall with such heaviosity there was barely room to breathe. Yes, frontman Matt Pike is lord of all that he surveys, but the human locomotive that propels this juggernaut, drummer Des Kensel, was worthy of his own congregation: the man is a force of nature.

Die Kreuzen were another band deserving of a second bite of the cherry. Looking a little adrift in the vast expanses of the 013's main stage, the seminal midwest hardcore band were far more at home in the club-like environs of the Green Room, with some earlier, speedier material given an airing. I think I even saw people stagediving. Maybe I was even stagediving? I dunno – it was all a blur, which was the point, really.

Due to Diagonal's cancellation on the Sunday, Pallbearer were given the opportunity to set right their disappointing performance on the opening day. Yes, thunderous riffs did boom out and harmonised guitars indeed soared, but Brett Campbell's voice cracked like a 40-a-day research beagle with a chest infection. Second time around, all the pieces clicked together beautifully, and the Arkansas four-piece scaled the heights that we – and they – believed they were capable of all along. Ah, the chance to go back and make amends when things don't quite work out as planned. If only life could always be so simple...

You Don't Get A Phone Call If You're Arrested in Holland

And so to the, ahem, legal complications that overshadowed my final hours in Tilburg. To make a long story short, I got a little bit drunk on my last night, got in an argument with some taxi drivers and spent a night in the cells for my troubles. But you didn't stick around this far for the short story, did you? You want all the gory details. Here goes:

I should have left for the safari park with my friends when they buggered off around 10.30pm as we were pretty far gone then, even by Roadburn standards. But the spirit of excess had grabbed me, and I found some other party-minded souls to laugh, shout, arm-wrestle and ingest mysterious liquors with. When I'd finally had enough, I realised I couldn't realistically cycle home without ending up in a canal. Spying a taxi rank by the venue, I asked one driver if I could stick the bike in the boot and then get driven home. Neither he nor his colleagues exactly got on board with my genius scheme, so I politely replied: 'Ah well, fuck yeez then!' and staggered off. Then all hell broke loose. They claimed I'd deliberately scraped my pedal along the side of their car (I hadn't) and were barking at me in a some hybrid of enraged Turkish, Dutch and English (the English bits being mainly 'Fuck' and 'Fucking fuck'). As civilly as I could muster, I retorted: 'Ach, away and fuck yourselves, you bunch of arseholes' and turned my back on them. All hell broke even looser. I got shoved in the back, so I turned round and swung my rucksack at them - the contents (including a bike lock that, had it hit them, would have caused me to spend more than one measly night in the cells, that's for sure) scattered across the pavement. My sense of balance not what it might have been, I was easily shoved to the ground and they set about me. A flurry of kicks and punches followed, but as they were wearing the minicab driver default footwear of patent leather slip-ons, the damage was minimal, save a slight graze above my ear. One young lad made a valiant attempt to sit on my back, which I foiled by doing some press-ups, and he, rather comically, tumbled to the ground. (If there was one aspect of physical pain that stuck with me in the following days, it was the ache in my arms from this Herculean feat of drunken vanity.) Then they got their act together and I was finally stuck fast with a host of bodies piled on top of mine. That's when I went into crisis mode. What was it my friend - a kickboxer, bouncer and all-round man not to be messed with - had told me to do in situations like this? 'Whatever you do, don't end up on the ground.' Ah, shite. Ok, what was the next thing? 'If in doubt, go absolutely mental.'

I went absolutely mental. Every sinew of every muscle convulsed as I thrashed around on the pavement. To add to the theatrics, I started shouting the same phrase over and over again - half distress signal; half madrigal to give me strength in the struggle. I honestly cant remember what I kept shouting apart from it was something to do with 'violence' and possibly 'the state'. It might have been something I had read projected behind Antisect in their agit-prop, bum-out Powerpoint; it could easily have been Monty Python's 'Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help, I'm being repressed'. I do hope it was the latter.

Eventually, I heard a soothing female Dutch accent my ear. 'You can calm down now. This is the police. We're going to handcuff you and pick you up.' My body went limp immediately. There's no point in fighting cops; the game's a bogey from thereon in. Besides, I was the one being assaulted, wasn't I?

Stuck in the back of the police van, I had to plead with them to bring my bike along, too (or at least let me lock it up). They eventually relented, and I fully expected to be dumped at the station and told to get the hell out of Tilburg or, even better, escorted back at the safari park. (The fact that people who receive police escorts back home don't usually get cuffed into the bargain hadn't quite sunk in at that point.) Instead I was taken to a police station and charged with criminal damage, then led to my cell (single, mercifully) for the night. 'I want a phone call, and I want a lawyer,' I said. They just stared at me, and shut the cell door. There was an intercom on the wall above the metal toilet bowl. Bzzt. 'Yes?' 'I want a lawyer! 'There is no lawyer until the morning. Go to bed.' click Bzzt. ' .... Yes?' 'I want my phone call' 'No phone for you.' click Bzzt. 'I want a fucking lawyer!' click The bastards had turned the intercom off. After considering a Bobby Sands-style dirty protest for about half a second and then making myself ill at the thought, I relented and went to bed.

Around 6am, I was woken up and introduced to the duty lawyer, a friendly young man who had been at Roadburn himself, although had clearly left at a reasonable time so as to be up bright and early in order to best represent miscreants such as myself. 'I've got a train in Brussels at 6pm I'd quite like to catch,' I told him. 'Don't worry. They want rid of you, too - you'll be out of here by three.' He also explained that you don't get a phone call if you're arrested in Holland - and they can hold you for three days without charge. I suppose, in some small way, I was lucky.

The rest of the morning went approximately like this: Sleep. Taken out of cell for fingerprints. Sleep. Taken out of cell to tell them where my passport was in my chalet (UK driving licences don't count as ID, apparently, which accounted for me being held far longer than usual). Sleep. Woken up for lunch - a plastic cheese sandwich and, for dessert, two slices of brown bread with a small sachet of chocolate sprinkles. (Clearly, this was revenge for my previous mockery of the limitations of Dutch cuisine.) Sleep. Taken out of cell for interview with two detectives, one of whom bore more than a passing resemblance to Sara Lund of The Killing, which made it a rather bitter-sweet experience.

For legal reasons, the interview had to be conducted in Dutch, with a translator on speakerphone interpreting their questions for me.

Detective: (something in Dutch)

Speakerphone: 'She said fsstwizzt crackle taxi drivers say that you crrrsfsst bicycle lock fffssstsrrr damage.'

Me: 'Eh?'

Detective: 'She said that I said: "The taxi drivers say that you attacked their cars with a bicycle lock causing signficant damage." Is that true?'

Me: 'That's a lot of bollocks'

Detective: 'Pardon?'

Me: "I mean, 'No!'"

Detective: 'Tell the interpreter'

Me (leaning into phone): 'No'

Speakerphone: skronkle

Detective (to assistant): Just write down: 'Nee!'

This farcical exchange went on for half an hour until, out of nowhere, they started taking about the size of the fine I would have to pay.

'Hang on! I'm not paying a fine until you show me some evidence', I blurted out, incredulously.

With a smirk, Lund-alike opened a folder and slid over a picture of my Kryptonite bike lock.

'Yeah, that's my lock. And?'

'This is what they said caused the damage.'

'So? Do you have any pictures of this "damage"?'

".... (her lips thinning) Right, time to go back to the cells. We'll speak to you later."

Another couple of hours passed, with my heart continually leaping as the sound jangling of keys announced freedom only for them to be used on a door further down the corridor, the glorious metallic crunch of a Yale being unlocked on my door heralded some sort of development.

'You are free to go. We just need you to sign one more thing.' It was a summons to appear on court in Breda on July 19. (Guess they didn't have those photos of the criminal damage to hand after all.) I collected my stuff - a goodie bag of vaguely recognisable objects attached to less tangible memories from the night before: 'Ooh, I don't remember buying that record ... where the hell did all that beer come from? ... Who the hell is Anders?'

One important object was missing, however. 'Where's my bike?' I said to the sullen, humourless duty officer tasked with signing me out.

He shrugged. 'It's not on the sheet here.'

'Yeah, well, it came in the van with me. It must be somewhere.'

He gave a cursory glance over his shoulder. 'It's not here.'

'So where is it then?'

'It must be at the other station.'

'Can you find out?'

He gave another micro-shrug. 'It's not possible' Itsh not poshable - three words that would haunt me for the rest of the day - eg 'I was supposed to check out today, but I've missed my train. I know this is last minute, but do you have a vacancy for one more night?'

'Sorry. Itsh not poshable.'

'So I printed out my e-ticket for the train out of Tilburg, but it's been soaked in the rain that I've been walking in for the last hour, and is now basically a ball of sludge. Can you - unfriendly woman who works for the train company and who has a bloody computer right in front of you - print it out for me, please, so I can at least leave the country before I get arrested again, quite possibly for your murder?'

'Itsh not poshable.'

But I digress. I asked the remedial-grade cop where the 'other station' was.

'It's on the main road there. 10 minutes walk'

'Which way?'

'Right. No ... left.'

'Uh-huh ... and you're sure you can't phone them to see if they have my bike?'

'Itsh not ... '

'Yeah, yeah - I get it. Can I phone them then?'

'You must use the central number: it is zero ... eight ... zero. No, wait ... zero ... nine ...”

'OH, FOR FUCK'S SAKE!'

I turned on my heels and walked off before I got lifted again, this time for hitting an officer of the law over the head with a Sabbath Assembly 7", and headed in the vague direction of this mythical other station. It wasn't 10 minute's walk. It was an hour's walk - across fields, streams and along the side of motorways - thus I missed my train and spent another, unplanned night on the continent. Incredibly though, and against all odds, my bike was there, and was brought to me by a far friendlier police officer. I could have cried. Well done, Holland - only some of your cops are complete dicks. See you in court.

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