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LIVE REPORT: Roadburn Festival 2012
Jamie Thomson , April 27th, 2012 17:35

Last year, Jamie Thomson road all the way to Roadburn for the Quietus. This time around, he's taken powered transport... but his trusty two-wheeler is still along for a basting from some of the finest names in metal. Photographs thanks to Jan Rijk

"Wow, rush hour in Eindhoven is just as bad as it is in London. This is total bedlam!" I thought to myself as I negotiated teeming crowds of very damp, very angry Dutch people at the city's central station. I was on my way to Tilburg, home to the Roadburn Festival and its annual celebration of all things heavy. My companions for the weekend had gone ahead of me, and – after having a disco nap, much-needed after a 6am start – my plan was to breeze into the festival well-rested, and catch up with them during Agalloch's set.

Unfortunately, the thunderstorm whose distant rumbles had lulled me to sleep in my Eindhoven hotel had other plans. A lightning strike had knocked out the power for most of the rail network in the area, and the station was filling up with more and more people desperate to get home, but with no way of doing so. In among the throng was the odd hairy man in a black metal shirt, looking panicked at the thought of missing Roadburn's opening day.

Had I had more presence of mind, I would have corralled us all together, jumped in a cab and make the 30-mile or so journey that way, 120 euros lighter of pocket between us. Instead, I fumed slightly at the irony of the situation, given that it was only last year that I cycled to the festival from London as an example of what can be done when the entire travel network goes tits up in the face of nature's meddlesome ways (as it had done in 2010). I even had my bike with me, too (albeit, put to bed for the night in the cycle park under the station.) But cycling 30 miles without maps? Or preparation? With the light fading? In this bloody weather?!? Nah. I'll wait it out. Besides, the trains can't be down for that long, can they?

Day 1 (slight delay)

Four hours later, I finally make it to 013, the venue that is the jewel in Roadburn's crown and where 75% of the weekend's action will take place. All the performances that I'd planned to ease into the festival with had long since finished, and exist now only as text-message appraisals (Agalloch were 'fcking brillaint'), one-sided conversations ('Did you see Saturnalia Temple? They were amazing!' 'Ummm...') or overheard snippets of bar conversations (Red Fang were 'very Baronessy', apparently). However, most of Roadburn is experienced this way. While there'll be a few touchstones that everyone wants to see – Sleep, OM, The Obsessed – and will cram into the main room for a mass congregation in praise of 'the riff', it's entirely possible for three people to have three entirely different weekends all within a few feet of each other.

My own started off with Killing Joke, and from the second I walked in there, I could tell something was off. Had they got stuck in Eindhoven, too? That could be the only explanation for the black cloud of gloom that hung over the stage. But how could they have got here before me? As it transpired, the guitarist had a hissy fit and kicked his monitors off the stage apparently due to the sound. Bad sound? At Roadburn? Sleep could have opened with a One Direction cover and it would have been less controversial. NOBODY gets a bad sound at 013 – it just doesn't happen. Regardless, the vibe was kind of dead in the main room as a result, so I went looking for amusement elsewhere, which I found in the joyously heavy Lord Vicar, and Ancient VVisdom, whose satanic AOR I will generously describe as very, very silly indeed.

I was placing a lot of faith in Ulver to turn my day around, but ultimately I was to be disappointed. They were playing set of 60s psyche covers – Chocolate Watch Band, the 13th Floor Elevators, the Electric Prunes etc – and while the band themselves had a pretty good stab at recreating the sounds of the time, the alchemical tools to make it something special seemed just out of frontman Kristoffer Rygg's reach. Ulver's restless reinvention is rarely less than compelling, so it was unusual to see their ambitions outstrip their ability.

Thank Korgull for Voivod, then, who never fail to flourish in these surroundings. After two triumphant performances last year, the Canadian prog-thrash pioneers returned to curate their own day, and to perform Dimension Hatross in its entirety. Today, though, it was more of a mixed-bag set, but with no dip in quality, even when singer Snake seemed to impersonating some kind of grotesque sea creature while dancing to an extended bout of widdling from guitarist Dan Mongrain. I was about to call it a day when, on the way out of the venue, my attention was caught by a siren's wail, and I was drawn inexorably to the Green Room, the 013's middle venue. Chelsea Wolfe's mix of shoegaze swirls and satanic swamp-rock stomp was totally, irresistibly enthralling (and I missed the last train home as a result.) It's these kind of discoveries that Roadburn is built upon. Just by chance, you'll stumble across a performance from a band who'll be your new favourite thing for the next 12 months, then you come back here, and you start the process all over again.

After cadging a lift back to Eindhoven from a good Samaritan, it transpired that – after all the accusations and recriminations about who didn't tell whom about when they were leaving or when the last train was - only one of our party had to sleep on a park bench. Pretty good odds, given the circumstances.

Day 2

Such scenarios would become less likely with our relocation to a rented bungalow (or 'jungalow' if you will) in a safari park five miles outside Tilburg. (Such outlandish accommodation becomes necessary during Roadburn because the sheer volume of bands in the town mean hotels are booked up months in advance.) While the chances of my getting stranded had dropped off considerably, the opportunities to accidentally cycle into a field full of lions had infinitely increased. In fact, I nearly managed it when I was sober, during daylight hours. It must be something of a miracle none of us had to be rescued by park rangers at 2am after hours of boozing and use of other dark materials.

The second day at Roadburn was a gridlock of single-syllable grunts of heaviness. Witch. Kong. GNOD. Yob – the latter being the best band of the day with a set of kerDUNG-kerDUNG-kerDUNG neckache-inducing riffing that tested the 013 sound system to its limits. Valiant Thorr (letting the side down with a four-syllable name) were Friday's surprise package. Like meth-fuelled, shit-kicking redneck AC/DC devotees who decided to hop up their sound with a Thin Lizzy duel-guitar attack, this was gritty southern rock at its wrestling-boot-wearing best: a real find. Voivod then raised the stakes after their flawless rendition of Dimension Hatross by bringing on Die Kreuzen singer Dan Kubinski for a pitch-perfect cover of Man In The Trees' (watch here). In the cocoon of Roadburn, this band can do no wrong.

It was left to Doom (one syllable, and a good one at that) to round off the Friday night at Het Patronaat, Roadburn's subsidiary venue across the lane from the 013. What better way to cleanse the musical palate after a day of sludge than with a rowdy set of D-beat agitprop anthems - and what better surroundings for that than a former church. To witness a drunken crusty moshpit break out in a venue beset by stained-glass windows and ancient wooden rafters is to experience what Roadburn is all about: true one-offs never to be seen anywhere else.

With Police Bastard still bouncing around Tilburg's cobbled streets, home seemed the best option. The relative proximity of the safari park made the journey to bed considerably less of an ordeal than the night before, but I still managed to make life difficult for myself by trying to take a shortcut through a fence. Bikes aren't really meant to be dragged through fences: they have too many sticky-outy bits.

And, as well as leaving some of my shirt, a bit of my pride, and a fair amount of the skin off the back of my thigh on its barbs, the callow laughs of the flotilla of teenage Dutch girls cycling by will stick in my memory for a long time.

Day 3

Unperturbed by my tales of fence-entanglement and mocking laughter from Dutch teens, the rest of my party decide to hire bikes, too, thus exponentially increasing the scope for major traffic incidents, self-inflicted injuries and extreme lostness. However, the squares that they are, they drew the line at attempting my brilliant shortcut. Instead, they decide to take the official route out of the safari park and back towards Tilburg, which turns out to be one long straight line to the venue - rather than my zig-zagging cross-country ramble – and at least 20 minutes quicker. Hmm …

Saturday was when the heavyweights came out to play. Reunion sets by Wino's The Obsessed and Matt Pike's Sleep would vie to see who could cram the most amount of people into the 013's main room, creating an atmosphere that could be delicately described as 'sultry' – and illicitly smoky for the latter's dope-addled epics. Across the road, artist-in-residence Justin Broadrick was offering an iron fist inside a velvet glove in the form of Jesu, one of the many, many incarnations of his to play here. So entwined is he into the fabric of Roadburn, he would be as well buying a house in Tilburg. Next year sees him return with Godflesh to play Pure in its entirety. If it's anything like his Jesu set, then it can already be marked down as a must-see.

Earlier, Church of Misery were the first band I'd witness to suffer from serious gear issues, and, as such, their set of sludgy psychedelia was plagued with hiccups and never settled into the groove it deserved. Pelican, a band often maligned for punching under their weight, rose to the occasion however, and every cubic inch of the main room was filled to suffocating point with their colossal instrumentals. Away from the choking contact-high undulations of Sleep, Necros Christos offered up a refreshing blast of satanic doom/death metal. And, in Het Patronaat, Tombs showed that, despite the critical laudings given to their most recent album Path of Totality, they are still very much a live commodity, and their records have yet to truly catch the scale of their venomous assault in the flesh.

Corralling the rest of the group for the wagon train home, I'm happy to report that we only had two crashes and one near-death experience. Excellent work.

Day 4 – Afterburner – aka the Aftermath

Sunday at Roadburn, I had previously thought, is strictly for the diehards. It is also, I now realise, a chance for those not fortunate enough to get tickets for the first three days (which tend to sell out in a matter of minutes) to at least sample a bit of the Roadburn magic, as – although scaled down to two rooms in the 013 – Afterburner is a perfectly serviceable festival in its own right. For the rest of us, it's a chance to catch up for a drink with the friends you've been running into but never having the chance to chat with for the previous three days.

Occasionally, you might stumble into a room and watch five minutes of a band, through your fingers, hand clasped to face, as if in unimaginable pain. But, when you see that these rooms are still packed with attentive audiences, you don't feel so bad about slinking out again and finding succour in one of the bars round the corner. And although you might want to stick around and see what irresistible force/immovable object conundrums are thrown up by having both Bong and Bongripper sharing the same bill (will the latter invade the stage of the former to try and 'rip' them?), you may well decide that an early night is, for once, a reasonable option.

Thus, with one person and one bike lost (unfortunately, not the same bike-person partnership – that would be too simple), myself and the other remaining cyclist in the party head home. Following my lead, he makes the five-mile journey with unerring precision. That is, until the last 10 feet before home, where he, in a moment of pure slapstick, veers violently off the path and into a large bush. He hangs for a few seconds, held up by the branches, and then collapses in a noisy heap, somehow now permanently entwined in foliage and heavy Dutch cycling machinery.

It strikes me that this could be the perfect metaphor for the weekend as a whole – a glorious headlong dive into oblivion, but one that keeps you suspended until the very last minute, until the point you crash back to earth with a bump. But no. It was just very, very fucking funny. And, like Roadburn, you really had to be there.