ROADBURN FESTIVAL 2016
April 14-17, 2016 | Tilburg, The Netherlands | 013 Poppodium Tilburg
Written by Simon Mernagh | Photographed by Erik Luyten & Paul Verhagen
In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake writes that “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”. Rather than some nebulous ‘double-edged sword’, having too much of a good thing is enlightening, uplifting even, as our understanding of external phenomena rests on our experience of them; one can never read too many fantastic books, but if we feel ill after several tubs of ice cream, then maybe it is not as wonderful as we initially thought. The sheer variety of sounds which emanate from the small city of Tilburg during mid-April testifies to Blake’s thesis. To the envy of similar festivals, there exists a base standard at Roadburn; none of the 50+ artists I witnessed failed to deliver anything less than an average performance, with the majority exceeding expectations in some way – and all this thanks to the overwhelming professionalism of the organizers, musicians, and punters alike of Roadburn. With five stages spread across four days, and bands playing contemporaneously from the early afternoon until the wee hours of the night, there are simply too many acts to discuss in detail. Rather than taking the conventional approach of devoting a line or two to each artist, distilling any hope of analysis for the sake of meaningless blanket coverage, here instead are the frontrunners, those who left the strongest impressions amid the colossal competition.
One of the best aspects of Roadburn Festival is the generally ‘highbrow’ nature of the artists it attracts. Bands that play in Tilburg frequently emerge from the experimental or avant-garde milieu, interweaving grandiose philosophical concepts and introspections into complex, often genre-defying instrumentation. But the downside is that ‘fun’ is often relegated from the equation, and Italian funeral doom band, Abysmal Grief brought this in spades. Perched atop a black pulpit, donning a black top hat placing him somewhere between King Diamond and Bela Lugosi, frontman Labes C. Necrothytus crooned over his faux church organ notes like a preacher to his flock. There is a delicious air of campiness to the whole affair, with statues of the Virgin Mary glancing over crucifixes, and those specific chains which border grave sites. Bass player, Lord Alastair also appears to be dressed as some sort of wizard for reasons which are not immediately apparent. Their set flies by and ends in the wee hours of the evening, leaving about a fifth of their audience bemused beyond salvation and the majority lapping up the band’s signature Italian horror B-movie aesthetic. Potentially the most ‘enjoyable’ band of Roadburn’s latest installment.
Ritual music is hardly ten-a-penny at this latest installment of Roadburn. As diverse as it may be, the week’s worth of bands crammed into four days revolves primarily around doom metal and the plethora of shades which define the genre, from the experimental and avant-garde to the blackened and psychedelic. It quickly became obvious that many of those gathered round to catch Arktau Eos’ set were simply adverse to this sort of music, as attention spans did not last beyond five minutes in more than a few observers. The loss remains theirs, however; amid the thundering percussion and dizzying sonic distortions, the Finnish outfit unleashed some truly disturbing, primal, hypnotic ambient music, all the while engaging in some fascinatingly abstruse ritualistic ceremonies. Some of the weary onlookers enjoyed themselves at the band’s joint gig with Hexvessel the following day, where Arktau Eos’ droning chaos enveloped their countrymen’s folky psychedelia in a haze of darkened ambiance, perfectly contrasting with Hexvessel’s generally upbeat tunefulness.
Of the various strains of rock revivalism permeating modern heavy music, the resurgence in old-fashioned occultism often seems skin-deep, informing lyrical themes, album artwork, and stage personae rather than colouring the music itself. Blood Ceremony are riding this wave, steering themselves away from the pomp and circumstantial gimmick of bands like Ghost and focusing instead on injecting some much-needed finesse into proceedings. Frontwoman Alia O’Brien’s soft vocals match her strengths as an organist-flautist, launching into sinister Coven-esque melodies and Ian Anderson-inspired flute solos with precision. Few of the artists on the lineup inspired as much crowd-singing as the Toronto foursome, and to say their audience was ‘into it’ would be underselling Blood Ceremony’s command: one could be forgiven for thinking this was a Manowar gig, given all the banging heads and raised horns in presence. To borrow a particularly egregious phrase from the contemporary tongue, the place was lit. As an almost insultingly tight unit, Blood Ceremony are a well-oiled machine atop the Roadburn stage.
Tucked away in a small venue, late in the day while experiencing an unfortunate scheduling clash with Neurosis’ first gig, the English act, Crumbling Ghost were a mystery right until they took to the stage. Any reservations about skipping the headliners quickly dissipated, however, as it grew clear that Crumbling Ghost were perhaps the most unexpected, pleasant surprise of the festival. Blending neofolk with progressive rock, stirring in hearty dollops of stoner doom every so often, the band sped through re-worked traditional tunes and stirring murder ballads with seeming ease. While working extremely well as a unit, particular attention must be drawn to singer-percussionist Katie Harnett, whose strong yet unwaveringly ethereal voice steals the prize for the most mesmerizing vocals at Roadburn this year. Virtually every member of the bulging crowd headed straight to the merch stand the moment Crumbling Ghost’s set ended (this writer included) – this act alone says more than words ever could. Most certainly a band worth watching.
Diamanda Galas has become such a stalwart institution of experimental music that writing anything new about her almost feels perfunctory. But despite her titanic status, her performance at Roadburn was intimate, subdued; though she occupied the main stage, heralding an enormous crowd of curious onlookers mostly unfamiliar with her work, the barrier between artist and audience faded into the ether. Armed with a grand piano and flicking through the sheet music pages of her musical repertoire without much noticeable rhyme or reason, she stampeded through an array of cover songs and original pieces, each more astonishing and unsettling than the last. Sounding somewhere between the weather-beaten huskiness of latter-day Billie Holiday mixed with a raw aggression, passion, and grim subject matter associated with Tom Waits, Galas captivated the crowd with her singularly bewitching vocal talents and barebones pianoforte chording. Jokingly remarking to her congregation that “you have great attention spans” (considering that “I don’t even have a drummer!”), her sentiment rang true: no other artist commanded such respectful and sincere concentration over the course of the festival. Audience members stared in slack-jawed astonishment, uniting unprepared newcomers with European fans thrilled to see their American idol give a rare performance so far from her home.
Despite the omnipresence of audio-visual backdrops and stage decorations throughout the weekend, no band at this year’s Roadburn came across quite as profoundly cinematic as Jakob. The New Zealand-based trio used the staggeringly beautiful natural videography of Jérôme Siegelaer to illustrate their entirely instrumental post-rock set. One would be forgiven for wondering how a three-piece could possibly evoke the ethereal sounds popularized by Mogwai, Sigur Rós et al, but there is a gracefulness to their relative simplicity. Their more extended songs begin with sparse understatement, uniting a lethargic guitar-bass-drums triptych before gaining pace and accelerating into a dense, evocative sonic maelstrom. Another essential factor in the Jakob equation is the volume; these guys are loud, and their sound only grows more ear-shakingly intense at the same snail’s pace as the musical complexity. An engaging cocktail of ethereal yet forceful melodies, spectacular visuals and a potentially dangerous mass of decibels, Jakob are something of a revelation.
It boggles the mind to think Neurosis have been going for thirty years. Even more stupefying is their decision to celebrate their three decades by playing two very long gigs over a pair of nights without duplicating a single song. Neurosis have oscillated between a variety of musical styles, from hardcore punk to experimental ambiance via sludgy doom metal and full-tilt industrial music. Yet they have crafted an ironclad sense of identity, demonstrated in Tilburg by the uniting of these varying, at times oppositional styles under the banner of Neurosis. Cuts taken throughout their extended discography flowed together in such a way which songs written decades apart almost never do, underlined by expert musicianship by all involved. Their records are far from over-produced, but live Neurosis have a rough sonic quality which only adds to their special brand of erudite menace. A reliably eloquent band in both lyrical content and musical diversity, it’s a testament to their prowess as a band that none of their combined five hours ever slacks into repetition. Long live Neurosis.
Of all the Icelandic names on the bill, there was something peculiar about NYIÞ. Not one of Grafir, Misþyrming, or Naðra failed to impress, with each band leaving their individual stamps on relentless Icelandic extremity. NYIÞ, by contrast, is a much subtler prospect, cerebral in their approach to avant-garde experimentation, rarely crossing into what could be considered ‘extreme’. Utilizing an impressive range of instruments, incorporating an earth-shaking baritone warble on occasion, NYIÞ steer from jazzy brass and organ to mournful violin and accordion at a snail’s pace. Despite the omnipresence of doom metal bands at Roadburn, NYIÞ create some of the most slow-paced sounds of the festival, and it’s among the most dour to boot. The music feels devotional; what exactly to remains unclear, and the anonymity of its membership coupled with their use of cryptic imagery leaves this question unanswered. While they lack the sonic brutality of their fellow Icelandic countrymen, NYIÞ manage to create some of the most genuinely unsettling ambient music on offer in Tilburg, made all the more impressive by the array of traditional physical instrumentation used in the process.
:Of the Wand & the Moon:
A noticeable increase in the number of dyed mohawks and Crass patches heralded legendary Japanese punk band G.I.S.M.’s first appearance outside the homeland, and the Poppodium was rammed as a result. Those looking for a more cerebral listening experience thus had plenty of room to catch Kim Larsen and company as :Of the Wand and the Moon: serenaded the Patronaat with their unclassifiable, enthralling sound. Of the cornucopia of subgenres attached to this band, from experimental neofolk to dark ambient and everything in between, at Roadburn, Larsen’s troupe comes across as a folk-oriented progressive rock band; though plenty of material from 2011’s masterful The Lone Descent receives an airing, much of the menace endemic to that album and their broader discography is absent live, supplanted by that particular sort of joyous, harmonious musical exploration traditionally associated with vintage prog rock. Larsen steers his group of virtuosos through an unpredictable sonic journey, expertly blending acoustic with electric instrumentation, straying into orchestral flourishes and synthesized embellishments while maintaining those particular folk-prog curlicues, equivalent to a post-industrial Camel. Floating amidst a sea of artists determined to convey misery as intensely as possible through their music or live personae (usually both), OTWATM champion an infectious passion for their craft which is utterly engaging.