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Things Learned At: Roadburn 2017
Toby Cook , May 10th, 2017 08:54

At this year's Roadburn Festival in Tilburg, Toby Cook finds both a panacea to and projection of the state of contemporary politics, witnesses the sonic ferocity of Mysticum and appreciates the truly psychedelic nature of Gnod. (Photographs by Justin Ligtvoet and Paul Verhagen respectively)

Love In The Time Of Brexit

Why do we even go to music festivals anymore? And I don’t mean in the ‘well, if you’re going to Reading it’s obviously to celebrate your A-Level results; Glastonbury if you’ve literally never heard of another festival, ever’ kind of way. I mean: Why? We’re not going to ‘drop out’ or ‘find ourselves’, you fucking hippy, that shit had already long gone by the time models wearing wellington boots and ‘festival fashion’ became things deemed worthy of reporting. If it ever really existed in the first place. Which it probably didn’t. Woodstock didn’t happen exactly the way the nostalgia-riddled guff of the Boomer generation says it did. Ultimately, perhaps, we go to festivals just to escape, however we reconcile that emotion individually: to escape from our jobs and the endless zoetrope of our surroundings and routine. And maybe now more than ever: fucking politics.

So much of what’s happening in 2017 is habitually viewed through the horrible prism of Brexit and Donald fucking Trump. They seem to inhabit everything and Roadburn was not entirely immune – from Ulver’s laser show projections of the Whitehouse during ‘So Falls The World’ and Big Business bassist Jarred Warrant creating an improvised, loop pedal aided song about just how fucking sick he is of “old, rich, racist, homophobic white men” to over-heard jokes about ‘needing a visa to come back next year’ – and it can fucking bring you down hard. A music festival shouldn’t have to be the place for smug, political cynicism – we’ve come to escape after all. But, these are isolated incidents and a huge part of what makes Roadburn so special is that just it’s very existence ultimately stands as a loud, denim-clad ‘fuck you’, an almost covert antithesis to all the waffling, cynical and scared attitudes that Brexit has largely come to represent. If you look around at the attendees and the bands alone: 75 percent of Roadburn’s audience comes from outside of Holland – this year there are punters from all over Europe, North and South America, Asia and Australia. And the performers cover a similar geographical and cultural spectrum as well. It is a pilgrimage in almost the truest sense of the word – the sense of community, the very real sense of belonging, the love. It’s as much a part of what brings us back every year as the bands; it’s why every review you’re going to read of Roadburn reads like a fawning love letter and it’s precisely why this one does as well. It’s also why I sound like a fucking hippy now too.

I’ve been privileged enough to have attended a lot of different festivals all over the world, but none are quite like Roadburn. But then maybe by returning almost every year, swapping one liberal-left metropolitan bubble for another I’m losing my objectivity, so I leave it to (first time Roadburn-er) The Bug’s Kevin Martin, who posted the following on Facebook shortly after he and Dylan Carlson crumbled the mainstage on Saturday, to sum it up better: “A Bug's natural environment is not Roadburn Festival... But I'm so happy to report the huge crowd of largely black clad music lovers is 101% passionate and totally open to Metal in all its forms and mutations and very vocal in praise…

“The crowd and organizers indeed unite in creating a very positive atmosphere at the fest, despite the crunching wall of fuck you being blasted from virtually every venue... “The massive crowd were absolutely open to our unique divergence, and followed us into our turbulent sea of sound. So big thanks to all those in the hall for your open mindedness and the incredibly warm response. It took me off guard...”

Don’t take psychedelics and then accidentally wander into Mysticum’s performance.

Speak to anyone who attended Roadburn 2017 and one of the first words past their lips is going to be ‘Mysticum’. Wandering around the festival, Tilburg and the campsite late Saturday night/Early Sunday morning after the Norwegian industrial black metal trio had closed the main stage was like that bit of the beach scene in Saving Private Ryan after a shell goes off in Tom Hanks’ face and in his disoriented state he sees his fellow men wandering around like a lurching pack of Zombies, such was the stupefying spectacle of the group’s performance. It was not, however, a performance you accidentally want to walk into having succumb to the Amsterdam tourist trap of ‘magic truffles’ and eaten an entire portion about an hour earlier.

Walking towards the main hall, eyes wide and pupils almost bursting just from the warm glow of the hallway lights alone, only to be confronted by Mysticum on stage – or rather about 12 feet above it, the three members looking like a nihilist Kiss and towering above the masses on three monolithic towers – takes sensory assault to another level. With the trio astride their columns shrouded in near darkness, with mono-chrome projections behind and below them of marching armies and heavy artillery, iron eagles and hypodermic syringes, and the ubiquitous ‘666’, whilst all the while apocalyptic, drum-machine black metal that sounds like an exploding tank factory marches over you is a profoundly punishing experience in any state. When the relentless strobe seems to be birthing orbs of rainbow light, however, and the group’s plinths seem to be lurching ever closer, ever more dangerously towards you, and when the floor looks like fractured glass, it’s probably time to leave.

Roadburn has surely never witnessed a performance of such fierce individual vision and such sonic ferocity – for anyone questioning black metal’s inclusion this must’ve undoubtedly changed what was left of their minds forever. I’m just sorry I missed it….

Who needs guitars anyway?

A lot is made about just how much more diverse Roadburn is getting with every passing edition and unsurprisingly this year was no different – and I’m not talking about the fact that Inter Arma have a permanent member on Theremin. From the likes of bass-lead arcade-synth noise rock troupe No Spill Blood, who masterfully turned sunken Saturday eyes into disco balls and the insane percussive precision of Big Business to those bands that eschewed the conventional weapons of rock altogether this may have been the most un-Roadburn Roadburn yet. And we loved it! ZU’s industrial-noise-jazz odyssey was weekend highlight that’ll be seared into minds and retinas for years to come; Author and Punishers homemade instruments, that appear to have been constructed from the spare parts of a steam train and are used to construct a throbbing, post-Godflesh industrial racket; and then there was fucking Dälek. Hip-hop has never made any significant impression at Roadburn, but then Dälek are not the average hip-hop ensemble: Jarring industrial beats, claustrophobic soundscapes and gnarly tape loops, and furious and impassioned raps delivered with terrifying sincerity. It’s no wonder they packed-out the second stage with denim-clad worriers bouncing like they’ve had one gin and juice too many.

No other band could’ve done what Gnod did this weekend.

The first time I saw Manchester based psych institution Gnod some eight years ago now was a truly transformative experience. There relentless throb of their kraut influenced druggy psychedelia felt at once both monolithically oppressive but absolutely freeing too – their warped cacophony, I’m sure, on some level forever altered my brain. But quite honestly they looked more fucked up that most of the people watching them and band leader Paddy Shine spent the whole set looking as if he was having some sort of brain aneurism or stroke. Honestly, that they could have risen to the status of Artists In Residence at Roadburn was pretty unthinkable. Eight years later, though, and you really couldn’t envisage a band capable of doing what the Salford collective pulled off. From their searing, caustic improvised noise set on Thursday, to their nodding, multi-hued collaboration with Bristol’s Kuro on Saturday and their heavy-psych mainstage performance on Sunday as BBV with Radar Men From The Moon, like sonic chameleons the band moved through their guises with liquid fluidity without ever abandoning or jeopardising their core sound. It was their Friday ‘greatest hits’ set, however, that was the most special of the weekend. With vocalist Neil Francis back in the fold, the sextet powered through a heady melange of their heavier material, mostly culled from last year’s excellent Mirror, new LP Just Say No… and even, by the sounds of it, their psych-kraut masterpiece Chaudelande. At times soundings heavier and doomy-er than many of their more metal contemporaries on the bill yet also wandering into warped noise excursions that would make most other psych bands this weekend look about as psychedelic as shoe shopping this was a performance so buzzing with gnarled electricity as to be forever indelibly stamped into Roadburn folklore.

It’s all about the light bulb.

One of the many great things about Roadburn is their effort and commitment to allowing bands to explore the visual aesthetic of their performances – all three major stages are backed by large screens allowing bands to project all manner of things, whether it’s Ulver and their 80’s planetarium-like laser show, or Whores backed simply by a picture of a dustbin. But then, though, there’s French trio Aluk Todolo, who simply play grouped around a single light bulb, powered by their own exertions. Playing their most recent album, the darkly transcendental Voix in full, the band, as they say themselves, are “part occult black metal fiend, part snide kraut menace” and that might be daunting enough on its own. And yet, crowed around their single, swinging light there’s a genuine sense of threat and insanity – the trio seem stuck in some sort of Kafka-esque nightmare where they daren’t stop playing and let the light go out, even though they’re never quite sure why. As the velocity and intensity builds, as the guitarist picks up his pedal board and starts – seriously! – shredding with it it’s impossible not to get dragged into their impossible world. The fleeting moment of panic when they eventually stop playing and that bulb finally goes out is un-fucking-real.

“Band of the weekend? What, just one?!”

Seriously, where do you even start? Swedish doom/dirge quartet Suma laid noise-washed waste to the Green Room Saturday night – dragged forward by their drummers militaristic precision and Neolithic heaviness the quartet gave an unmissable lesson in rhythm as a bludgeoning weapon.

Elsewhere, also in the Green Room stage, Belfast’s sci-fi-addled weight-and-grunt doom trio Slomatics (who, judging by the smiles on their faces were enjoying the experience even more than their audience) turned in a performance of such bouldering, gravitational heaviness you almost expected to see Titan pulled out of its orbit and hurtling towards Tilburg.

And then there’s London psych troupe – and tQ favourites – Casual Nun, who on the basis of their Saturday tea-time performance are easily one of the most exciting psych bands in Europe at the moment. Their 45 minute duel-drummer, lysergic rollercoaster in a jam-packed and sweaty Extrase stage showed they harness break-neck riffs just as supremely as disorientating noise, and it surely won them a legion of new fans.

Closing the Het Patronaat on Sunday there was Inter Arma, who’s incendiary, post-mastodon, black metal-indebted onslaught felt like every last ounce of the festivals energy and spirt ravenously sucked up and then wrung out in a brutal sonic torrent that makes you think of what it must’ve been like seeing Neurosis 25 years ago.

Crust/d-beat legends Disfear need to get a solid mention here too. Mosh pits and stage divers are a rare sight indeed at Roadburn, not that you’d have thought it from the constant carnage of bodies swarming the stage throughout the Swedes hour-long set. Crust might seem like a throwback, nostalgic scene, but the sight of those even younger than your humble scribe screaming such deafening, raucous adulation for the group that they were compelled back to the stage even after their hour was up, shows a scene in the rudest of health.

Oh yeah, and then there’s Whores. In six short years the Atlanta, Georgia, noise rock/hardcore troupe have become somewhat of an institution, based in no small part on the wildly incendiary live performances. Throwing himself and his guitar about the stage whilst delivering a barrage of caustic, ear-worm riffs, main-man Christian Lembach genuinely looks constantly on the verge of bursting out of his own skin – the supremely cathartic nature of their half-hour, coupled with their obvious (if not slightly perverse) enjoyment lends their set the feeling of being glitter-bombed by someone high as fuck on bath salts.

Every festival should have a Sunday like this.

Four days of festival-ing is a long fucking weekend, dude – if you’re waking up Sunday afternoon with your pillow smelling of vodka, eyes like fag-burn holes and a half naked Dutchman called ‘Brian’ Sellotaped to your floor it’s kind of hard to get back into gear for one more day. Roadburn, masterfully, realise this: Sunday, formally known as the ‘Afterburner’, is perhaps one of the most blissfully chilled out festival days you’re ever likely to experience, and with deliberately fewer punters and one less venue in operation the entire vibe of the day is almost excessively more relaxed. Yes, with bands the like of Oxbow, Sumac, Caïna and the already discussed Inter Arma Sunday isn’t exactly ‘Roadburn-goes-folk’, but from the trippy, doom-folk of Jaye Jayle, to the gloriously indulgent and mesmerizingly entertaining retro-prog of the Legendary Gong, and especially with the strung-out, PJ Harvey-on-Quaaludes slow-core of Emma Ruth Rundle, Sundays in Tilburg feel like a much needed soak in a warm tub as opposed to the acid bath of the preceding three days. And long may it continue.

We’ll see you all next year then. Horns up, ya shitters!

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