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Things Learned At: Woodland Gathering
Danny Riley , July 20th, 2018 13:20

Woodland Gathering provides esoteric, DIY brilliance with The Cosmic Dead, Vibracathedral Orchestra, Conny Prantera and more

Barry (Oculus Sinistra)

Now in its fifth year, Woodland Gathering is one of the marginal but growing festivals catering to the weirdo underground, post-industrial and psychedelic scenes. It is held at Fell Foot Wood, an area of managed woodland next to Lake Windermere which specialises in events of an alternative nature (other happenings at the site include a shamanic retreat and black metal festival), with a thoroughly off-grid, DIY feel. Visitors are encouraged to bring their own drinking water, and there also seems to be a desire on the organisers’ part to keep things small - tickets for this year’s event were sold out, but space in the higgledy-piggledy hillside campsite is more than ample, and the barn-like structure which hosts all the music is never cramped, not even during a thunderous closing set by headliners Godflesh. Characterised by a tendency towards heaviosity and paganism, it’s the kind of place you’d imagine Julian Cope and Coil having a hell of a time, and seems to represent a harder edge of New Weird Britain; there are hardly any children and way more grindcore t-shirts than you’d see at somewhere like Supernormal. More than just a metal-based monolith, this year saw hedonistic techno fun from Downwards signee Autumns, Giant Swan side project Mun Sing and other strands of avant music.

Hairy bellied biker psych is food for the soul

See a name like The Cosmic Dead on a festival bill and you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s is another hangover from the great psych overload of 2013/14. But these guys don’t have high cheekbones, pristinely curated Instagram accounts and Spacemen 3 wannabe riffs - they’ve got a penchant for Buckfast, a sound that combines the most ridiculous elements of Hawkwind, Comets on Fire and greasy B-grade biker psych, and a healthy dose of self awareness (see the title of their 2017 Psych Is Dead LP). They prove to be a surprise triumph of Friday evening with their raucous set of hedonistic space rock, punctuated by frequent screams of “YASS”. They kick out the goddamn jams. Book these guys for your fortieth.

A similar thing could be said for the two-piece featuring The Cosmic Dead’s guitarist Acid Cannibals, who blow the lid off the barn with their colossal afternoon performance. They ratchet up levels of speed and ridiculousness and made a downright frightening sound considering their simple guitar and drums set-up. A must for anyone who likes Motörhead and dodgy white powders.

Drone doesn’t have to be heavy

In this particular quadrant of the underground, there’s a tendency for artists working in drone-based music to mistake heaviosity and darkness for profundity - lord knows we’ve all sat through dreary sets in which the musician, hunched over their laptop or pedalboard producing ‘ominous’ sustained tones, has clearly taken Super Hans’ ‘The longer the note, the more dread’ credo as gospel. Pound shop Sunn O))), basically. Yet as a decidedly more lightly-textured Sunday afternoon offering from Vibracathedral Orchestra proves, things can be a lot more interesting when you get rid of the doomy, faux-imposing trappings and focus on fun. The band play with largely the same instrumentation that they have been using for the past couple of years, and while this undoubtedly provides a sense of continuity with past performances it was far from business as usual. Moving imperceptibly from serene kosmische choogle to percussion-dominated primitivism, their hour-plus performance hits a rich zone and doesn’t let go. Call them a jam band at your peril: though they’re thoroughly no-chops, their playing style feels completely unique and certainly doesn’t happen by accident, poised as it is between unwavering focus and naive tinkering. The word ‘meditative’ gets thrown around a lot in regard to drone music, but Vibracathedral live conforms to this in the truest sense - there’s no build or development as such, just constantly changing sound to which the listener has to be constantly alive. The best kind of hyper-awareness.

A similar thing could be said for everyone’s favourite occult popsters Grumbling Fur, who close the festival with a rather short set under their Time Machine Orchestra guise. In front of projections of far-out documentary footage of marine fauna, the duo intone repeated vocal melodies, lay out expansive tones on treated cello and violin and jingled devotional percussion - not a monolithic drone with which to batter you into submission, but an inviting and absorbing sound world to get lost in.

There’s a wide world of noise out there

One of the more enlightening moments of the festival came courtesy of a talk by Zaire-born musician and researcher Cedrik Fermont a.k.a. C-drík, whose specialty is in pointing out the common folly in assuming that all music of the noise, drone and experimental persuasions comes from the West. Through years of travel and research, he has identified, reported on and archived extreme electronic music scenes across Asia and Africa, often releasing albums and compilations featuring these artists’ work via his Syrphe label. In 2016, in collaboration with academic and underground music head Dimitri della Faille, he put out Not Your World Music, a book of essays and interviews detailing contemporary and past noise and experimental scenes in South East Asia, taking in music produced in countries such as Malaysia, Burma and Vietnam.

With a mohawk, face tattoos and Skinny Puppy t-shirt, Fermont is clearly a child of industrial culture, but his knowledge goes beyond the confines of that world to touch on the musics that preceded it. A particularly interesting part of his talk, for example, concerns his memories of the musicological training he’d received in Belgium that considered the work of French composer Pierre Schaeffer ground zero for musique concrète. In fact, Fermont asserts, composers outside Europe had been working in the field years before. I hold my hands up and consider myself schooled.


More percussion equals more pandaemonium

Remember when indie bands in the mid-2000s carried on with that annoyingly superfluous practice of having an extra floor tom for the singer to bash in the climactic moments of songs, but which you couldn’t even hear? Leeds nutters Cattle may have a stand-up drummer in addition to their bass, electronics, drum kit and vocals set-up, but there’s no indie tomfoolery about them. Their thoroughly hardcore sound takes in white-knuckle punk, haywire electronics and kinetic polyrhythms, and inspires the wildest audience scenes of the weekend with Acid Cannibals’ drummer hanging from the barn’s rafters for half of the set. Saturday afternoon also sees a performance by Soft Issues, a noisier outlet featuring Cattle’s vocalist. A mixture of harsh electronics and vocals screamed in the Consumer Electronics/Dominick Fernow style, it is a thoroughly enjoyable exposition in back-to-basics abrasion.

With such testosterone-fueled scenes, one could argue there’s a danger that the festival programme would be dominated by macho noise. Fortunately, a performance by The Seer - the ritualistic multimedia project by artist Conny Prantera - offsets that. The piece, a meditation on the cursed prophetess of Greek mythology Cassandra, was devoted to an especially cosmic type of feminine energy. There are mystical incantations aplenty from a choir of robed acolytes on stage - some of whom have mannequins’ arms strapped to their backs seemingly in reference to the multi-limbed deities of the Vedic pantheon - but there is musical interest to be had too: sawing cello, electronic percussion and abstracted tones carry the performance. Whatever your feelings about current notions of ritual and its place in modern life, there is something rather convincing about this piece. After being daubed with some kind of sacral liquid we are led out by a flaming torch procession into the darkness, where mask-clad performers were tinkering on bells, zithers and an accordion to create an eerie psych-folk ambience. Barry, the owner of the site, does some more anointing - this time with some holy water - and we are left to process the weirdness.

There’s a genteelity to festivals today, even in those geared towards underground music. Could this be a chance for the younger generation to experience something approximating the DIY festival atmosphere of yore, without having to endure a programme of cringeworthy psy-trance? The festival organisers have a history of putting on events of an esoteric nature in the UK and Europe predating Woodland Gathering. Some expertise and contacts in the underground are clearly here - it will be interesting to see how the festival fares over the coming years.