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Things Learned At: Roadburn Festival
Harry Sword , April 27th, 2015 13:17

Harry Sword reports from the streets of Tilburg, where he witnesses a "a dizzying welter of heaviosity".

Photo by Niels Vinck

"Do you think Phil Collins will ever play at this festival? Sometime, maybe? I love Phil Collins"

"Ah, I doubt Phil Collins would ever play here, unfortunately. It's heavier music, generally" I say. "It's a shame" my taxi driver replies: "because really I love Phil Collins".

Alas, Roadburn - and my Tilburg cab driver - will almost certainly forever be denied the delights of the singing drummer even though…

This is no place for musical purism

For the uninitiated Roadburn may evoke images of slow burning riff worship and a general musical ambience of crushing doom. But while the low and the slow have formed the bedrock of programming for many years, the Tilburg institution has also long held a commendably open ended, purist free, stance with regards the line up. Offering perhaps the most diverse bill thus far, Roadburn 2015 spans a dizzying welter of heaviosity that covers everything from black metal and classically minded doom to psychedelia, goth and grizzled acoustic troubadours; a spirit of adventure.

Offering an exciting take on the very concept of 'heavy' (and one that doesn't start and end with complex breakdowns, blastbeats and guttural screams) it is to the organisers eternal credit that they consistently stimulate with a music policy that actively challenges preconceptions, shifts viewpoints and leads to a collective broadening of the synapses. Blessed as a festival that consistently sells out in a matter of minutes, Roadburn also seems to attract a crowd refreshingly unburdened by the wearisome tribal conservatism that can sometimes beset the many and various sub genres of metal.

Indeed, it bears asserting that this is by no means a 'metal' festival, per se. Thus we have the likes of goth favourites Fields Of The Nephilim delivering sumptuously overblown melodies in a sea of dry ice; Scott H Biram twanging out tales of poverty, drunken woe and love on a battered acoustic; Goblin gracing the main stage with live Italo movie scores and artists in residence The Heads offering serious and repeated doses of whacked out fuzz. Not to say that tumble down riff worship is not also front and centre, because it's represented handsomely with Eyehategod, Goatwhore and Fistula all drawing big crowds and underpinning the more esoteric tangents of the programme with aplomb.

Bongripper rivals the Iration Steppas Soundsystem in sheer bass weight

I remember an Iration Steppas vs. King Earthquake sound clash at a University of Dub dance held at Brixton Rec around 2003/4. It was absurd. The air felt like it was being sucked out of the room. An old dread in front of me was rolling a spliff, the contents of which were physically blown across the room - with laughable force - when one particularly caustic dub dropped. None more bass, I remember thinking at the time; more is not possible. More, however, actually is possible.

Bongripper, you see, are a very 'more' band. Slower? Louder? Please sir(s), may I have some more? Feedback? Please sir(s)… oh, you get the point. This is a band that combine progressive bludgeon, hypnosis inducing groove and sheer ferocious, exhilarating, unrelenting volume. Sitting somewhere between drone and instrumental doom they are not particularly subtle but, this Sunday afternoon, they sound utterly fantastic.

Playing their superlative 2014 Miserable LP in its entirety, the surprisingly sprightly and clean cut looking Illinois foursome assume positions facing each other and switch on amps. Rising buzz and hum fills the air, gaining in volume until full, crushing, chest plate bothering, trouser rattling immersion ensues. An immeasurably powerful live proposition, passages unfurl slowly and dramatically: anvil force tempered by the grace of jazz musicians, seriously skilled dynamics that make you focus on the granular quality of their sound.

The discipline of the performance is startling. It is all razor sharp, each drawn out power chord ringing and timed to perfection. Perhaps most telling of the Bongripper mindset and focus comes during the last few seconds. Guitarists Nick Delacrose and Dennis Pleckham look at each other intently as the deafening feedback rings out and, in unison, mouth '1,2,3,4' to each other before lightly stepping on their respective peddles, cutting the sound off. The ensuing silence is perfectly timed, and strangely deafening.

Perfectly sound

The sound at Roadburn is incredible. Round; thwacking; fibrous; viscous; fat; marbled; brute; lovely. In the Green Room I find myself turning up for sound checks, just to hear the perfectly - but perfectly - tuned bass drums thwacking away front and centre. Whoever is behind the desk is a genius.


So goes the clarion call (the full 3 minutes of feedback follows) and at this stage it is as legendary, welcome and anticipated an onstage greeting as 'we are Motorhead... and we play rock & roll'.

The sludge mainstays play twice and tonight (Thursday) - as custom dictates - the show kind of starts before the music. You may know the drill by now. Mike Williams and Jimmy Bower walking about onstage trading increasingly impassioned insults with the audience; Williams blowing his nose onto the stage; both heckling, hooting with laughter, passing beers and generally making nuisances of themselves. The pre show vibe Eyehategod set up is one of a rawkus bacchanalian house party, the division between band and audience completely non existent. That all changes with the feedback squall and above mentioned call, however. Then comes business: total annihilation, in fact.

They possess an enviable musical telepathy; one that permeates every aspect of their performance. The blessed feedback rings for a good two minutes between every song - heads bowed, facing each other - they start each song in perfect unison. Heavy on their faster material, they start with caustic opener 'Agitation! Propaganda!' from last years superlative eponymous LP; furious rhythm, the missing link between hardcore and the blues. Indeed, tonight Eyehategod display as much hardcore granular venom as they do sludgy primordial gumbo, the old adage of 'Black Sabbath meets Black Flag' coming down firmly on Rollins team tonight.

While the term 'ritualistic' is bandied about in music writing fairly frequently (often without sufficient merit) with Eyehategod it makes sense. This is a band who live it, wholesale, so comfortable and adept at putting their audience into a state of blissful discomfort that they've evolved into a hydra head entity of raging oil slick heat haze auto destruction. Whiskey fumes and bedraggled chaos; a true band of brothers.

"When the bar staff are dancing, you must be doing something right"

So said the Admiral Sir Cloudsley Shovell the morning after their raucous show at the tiny Cul De Sac bar; and indeed they were. Their (painfully) sweaty performance had a mixture of beer and condensation dripping from the ceiling, bar staff leaping up and down; ice cold Jupiler flying as the Shovell entertained. For those unaware, The Admiral Sir Cloudsley Shovell are a sleazy power trio. They make quite absurdly greasy, teeth rattling, paint stripping rock n roll and tonight they play a set that is heavy on material from last years excellent Check Em Before You Wreck Em. Indeed, Lee Dorian was such a fan that he not only signed them to Rise Above but can be spotted wondering Roadburn sporting a Shovel back patch. So there.

Tonight the likes of 'The Thicker The Better' 'Do It Now' and older favourite 'Red Admiral… Black Sunrise' all sound raucous - tight, bluesy and as bloody as a steak that you've bravely asked to be cooked 'bleu' in France. Like many bands this weekend, they're playing twice and I also catch the tail end of their second show in the Green Room on the Sunday where they perform to a suitably daft backing of visual footage, most of which seems to be culled from Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads. This prompts perhaps my favourite moment of the whole festival when a Swedish black metal fan who is staying in my hotel turns and says - in an incredibly, laughably, deadpan voice - "what is this, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?". I resist the urge to attempt to break down the minutiae of Terry Collier, Bob Ferris and co and continue to bang my head…

Roadburn crowds don't wander aimlessly

The fear of 'missing something better' often sees festival crowds walking hither and thither like so many gormless cattle, catching random bits and pieces and not really engaging with anything. Thankfully, this is not the case at Roadburn. While not particularly loud (they are notably quiet, in fact), the Roadburn faithful tend to congregate at a stage a good half hour before a performance, get in place and focus on a performance with acute keenness. It creates an notably intense vibe; at times more akin to mild religious rite than gig. As tQ's Toby Cook said to me after Bongripper "it was like the wailing wall in there; everyone facing the same direction, slowly head banging in perfect unison".

Suspiria is wonderful. To see it on a peaceful Sunday afternoon in Tilburg with Goblin providing the live score is even more wonderful

A disturbed operatic feast, Suspiria is a mauve bacchanalian slice of glorious high camp and undoubtedly Dario Argento's greatest movie. It also boasts one of the most instantly recognisable scores in seventies horror courtesy of Italo prog masters Goblin, on hand in the main room of the 013 to play along to the movie. The atmosphere is electric; Claudio Simonetti's creepy keyboard refrain echoes around the walls and cheers erupt every time the deranged butler lurches into view. Simonetti himself calls to mind an old school jazz leader, introducing each band member (including himself) by name both before and after the movie, all very civilised and touchingly innocent, somehow.

Acid Witch are gloriously absurd

"I guess Europe and the USA are pretty similar in a lot of ways. We might speak different languages but we still like a lot of the same shit, right? You guys still like smoking weed, listening to heavy metal and watching horror movies, right? Well, this is a song about smoking weed, listening to heavy metal and watching horror movies. It's called adoptsdeathgrowl 'METAL…. MOVIE…. MARIJUANA…MASSACRE…MEELLLTTDDDOOWWWN"

Offering a lurid day -glo and endearingly eccentric view of heavy metal - think an odd kind of NWOBHM/doom/death hybrid, with loads of cranky old samples - Acid Witch are, on this beautifully sunny afternoon entertaining the Het Patronaat church hall.

Rich fumes fill the air and singer Slasher Dave spends the gig alternately hunched over his table of lo-fi effects and vintage synths or stalking the stage with palpable intent amid a barrage of memorable riffs. Although undoubtedly an escapist concern, Acid Witch are obviously serious about what they do and this afternoon tracks like 'Trick or Treat' and 'Stoned to the Grave' sound immensely pleasing.

Thee Travel Tavern ov Doom

I'm staying in a strange hotel a few miles outside of Tilburg. There are a few equally dazed and confused Roadburners here, but it seems to be mostly some kind of vast Dutch wedding venue with a casino and hotel attached, next to a big motorway. All rather surreal. The only way to my room is through a strange corridor which has vast glass walls through which lies the 'ballroom'. The ballroom itself is always full of people whopping and guffawing and doing the conga to a booming soundtrack of Netherlands Shlager music. After a day of incantations and imbibing, it both looks and sounds fearsome and nightly I scuttle rather than walk, lest I'm accosted by a bellowing drunken salesman in a polyester suit.

A constantly shifting cocoon of very strange sounds

That is what Paul Allen - both member of artists in residence The Heads, and also performing with his other band Anthroprophh - brings to bear. I watch The Heads doing their boogie orientated set on the Saturday night, I rollicking selection which still finds time for some superb 15 minute wig-outs and also watch a cranium expanding set from Anthroprophh on the Thursday afternoon.

The later saw Allen and co working with the more electronic side of the bands musical spectrum: viscous drones, knackered circuitry and hypnotically chugging guitars, all set to a great background; a black and white visual display of what looks like suburban Bristol circa 1968. Apparently Allen's synth set up was malfunctioning and he had to improvise somewhat, but this does not hinder the electric performance one iota; the churning rhythmic stew crashes and resounds like so many groovy hooves; orgone accumulator agogo.