THE SOUND OF THE GROUND OPENS UP FOR A VERY SUCCESSFUL FIRST YEAR – PART 2!
My band-watching choices on Friday were largely characterised by sure things and safe bets. Saturday was much more of a voyage into the unknown. With only a couple of bands marked down as ‘must see’, my chums and I were happy to simply go with the flow and see what happened. It was a strategy that met with some considerable success.
After picking up some much needed PROPER coffee from one of the food stands, the first band we stumble upon is Delta Sleep on the main stage. The quartet’s sound could be most easily described for Monolith regulars as being like The Safety Fire, only with the metal taken out and replaced with indie. Guitarists Glen and Devin play tapped, intertwining guitar lines, and trade vocals. They are underpinned by a genuinely excellent rhythm section, with some heavily jazz-influenced drumming and slinky, fretless-sounding basslines.
Whilst not necessarily something I would have actively chosen to listen to, and the heavier passages don’t really have the bite I would usually look for, they play an enjoyable show. Even the drumming alone was enough to hold my attention for the entirety of the set, and certainly worth a look at their Bandcamp for those who might fancy something a little technical, but not too abrasive.
Following them on the main stage are Bristol’s The Pirate Ship Quintet, who add a couple of unique twists to their occasionally explosive post-rock sound. Most apparent is the presence, seated front-and-centre-stage, of cellist Sandy. The cello gives the tracks a melancholy tone, achingly plaintive in the quiet passages and foreboding when the band kick up a dynamic gear.
Additionally, vocals are sporadically added to the mix by one of the guitarists, with a curious choice of microphone placement. The mic stand set to its full extension, with the mic draped over it, hanging a foot or so over the guitarist’s head. This positioning forced the vocalist to sing, or scream, with his head thrown back Lemmy-style, but also kept these occasional interjections buried deep in the mix and largely indecipherable. It’s certainly an unconventional approach, but an effective one – which pretty much sums up the band’s sound as a whole. Their 2007 EP is available via their Bandcamp page, with the more recent Rope For No Hopers album available from Denovali Records.
Back on the second stage are the St Pierre Snake Invasion, playing their second set of the weekend after stepping in at the last minute to replace Astrohenge on Friday. The Bristol quintet deliver probably the most straightforward set of the day, with their high-octane, hard-riffing, blues-drenched garage rock. Vocalist Damien spends the entire set on our side of the crowd barrier, first prowling the empty semi-circular space in front of the stage, before inviting the crowd to fill it and climbing on top of them. Whilst the band’s sound has firmly American influences, coming off a little like a hybrid of Rocket From The Crypt and The Jesus Lizard, it is infused with a very British sense of humour. The band have a track called “If The Only Way Is Essex Then Kill Me Now”. I rest my case. Coming in the middle of a full day of beard-stroking action, it is most refreshing to get a quick blast of non-nonsense, good time rock n’ roll. Their tunes can be heard on their Soundcloud page.
Rushing back again to the main stage, we catch Vessels. With a drummer and four guys with a collection of guitars, banks of synths, percussion and assorted magic boxes, the band play a sort of post-techno. They overlay danceable beats and bleepy keyboard riffs with spacey washes of guitar at speeds which are uptempo, but not hyperactive.
The songs ebb and flow comfortably and naturally, building up and breaking down without any unpleasant surprises. The results are immersive, an ideal festival soundtrack and very enjoyable. Oddly, although each song receives a warm round of applause from an almost full tent, there’s virtually no dancing at all in the crowd at the front of the stage. Perhaps they were packed in a bit too tightly to bop about.
Things take a little bit of a downswing for us at this point, as neither of the next two bands we see, Upcdownc and Arcane Roots, particularly excite me. Upcdownc’s largely instrumental rock definitely has some interesting moments, but I find they veer in and out of engaging me. They have plenty of tunes available on their Bandcamp if you fancy giving them a shot.
I’ve also found subsequently that my time may well have been better spent watching crossover act Castrovalva on the third stage, but these are the risks you take if you don’t do your homework. Their spiky, self-styled ‘noise-hop’ can be found on their Bandcamp page.
Even if I’m not particularly keen on Arcane Roots’ angular, high energy rock, the trio clearly have enough fans on site for it not to matter. Their set draws the biggest crowd I’ve seen yet to the third stage, and the tent is overflowing. With bands like Biffy Clyro and At The Drive-In as reference points, I think their sound doesn’t have quite enough low-end bite for my tastes, but if they are to your tastes, more can be found on their Bandcamp. Feeling like we’re just getting in the way of people who are genuinely enjoying the show, we leave the tent to get ourselves in position for the next band on the main stage.
London-based experimentalists Three Trapped Tigers carry the distinction of being the first band of the day that I’ve seen before, and I was very much looking forward to seeing them play in this setting. Some recent support slots with Deftones have raised their profile substantially, and they will also be heading out on the road with Dillinger Escape Plan, alongside fellow ArcTanGentlemen Maybeshewill, so I expect their star will continue to be in the ascendant for the remainder of the year. Their abrasive, technical hybrid of glitch electronica and math-rock is a full-on experience, and having had time to digest 2011 album Route One Or Die since the last time I saw them definitely helped me to enjoy them more. Their 45 minute set was engaging, but there’s simply so much to take in that I doubt I could have handled much more than that this deep into the festival. However, from our vantage point we had a clear view of drummer Adam Betts, and watching him hammer out the improbable, head-bending beats is a joy to behold. Check out his website for a couple of well-shot videos of him in action.
Having chosen to watch Brighton duo Nordic Giants largely on the basis of the campsite buzz around the band, I didn’t really know what to expect. As such, I was wholly unprepared for what turned out to be the most captivating set of the whole festival.
The pair emerged wearing elaborate, feathered costumes and settled in behind keyboards and drums respectively. Other instruments were dotted around the stage. The projector set in the centre of the stage whirred into life, and the assembled crowd was treated to an almost completely absorbing audio-visual performance.
The band have set their spacious, other-worldly post-rock to a collection of carefully selected short films. The result is astonishingly powerful, with some of the combinations becoming genuine emotional roller-coasters. As the set progresses, the general festival chatter grows quieter as more and more of the crowd get drawn in and swept along by what is happening on stage.
Both mysteriously anonymous musicians take time out from their main instruments to play something else – the drummer plays an electric guitar with a violin bow, and the keyboard player picks up a trumpet. The pair are also joined by female vocalist Freya, in an equally elaborate costume, whose contributions are delicately beautiful.
Musically, it was reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, with maybe elements of Massive Attack, Sigur Ros or some of Bjork‘s repetoire. The combination of sound and film reminded me of the excellent One Giant Leap project. ‘Cinematic’ is a descriptor that gets chucked around a great deal, especially in post-rock circles, but in this instance it is entirely appropriate. The films, a collection of live action, CGI and hand-drawn animation, were surprising, moving and, at times, incredibly dark.
Without qualification, Nordic Giants played my favourite set of the day and are my most exciting discovery of the entire festival. It’s been a very long time since a band previously unknown to me has provoked such a profound reaction – the auditory equivalent of love at first sight.
If it sounds like I’m gushing, it’s because I am.
I was not alone. A chap selling CDs after the set was practically mobbed, and sold out in minutes. Fortunately, all three of their EPs are available from their Bandcamp, and a new EP is due to be released on 1st October, coinciding with a short UK tour. If you are a fan of things ‘post’ and you are in striking distance of one of these shows, your attendance is mandatory. You have been told.
So we were a little bit dazed as we trundled back down to the main stage to see And So I Watch You From A Far(m) play what can only be described as a triumphant set. More upbeat, literally and figuratively, than most instrumental bands, it is an exuberant performance. The crowd respond in kind, with a vast crowd of bouncing bodies in front of them. It’s clear everyone involved is having a whale of a time – the band chuck themselves around the stage wearing huge smiles.
They point out, with a certain amount of incredulity, how awesome it is for an instrumental band to hear the crowd singing along with guitar parts in lieu of a vocal line for them to follow. I think that pretty much sums up the attitude of the crowd throughout the festival, really. ASIWYFA’s latest album All Hail Bright Futures (released March 19th) is available from their Bandcamp page!
I have a bit of an odd relationship with festival closers, the family-friendly Fuck Buttons. However appealing their dark, spiky electronica may be at the beginning of any given track, I quite quickly find them to be frustrating. If the main riff of any given track served as an introduction, then I’d probably really like them, but that isn’t really what happens. I can certainly appreciate that some people really like the sort of slow, gradual evolution of their tunes, but it simply doesn’t work for me – especially after the outright majesty of Nordic Giants, and the glorious energy of ASIWYFA, raised the bar so substantially for me; after that one-two, almost any headliner was going to carry a minor sense of anti-climax. But, again, admitting that I didn’t really enjoy it to other festival-goers after their set was met with cries of incredulity, so they were definitely doing something right.
After that, the silent disco did manage to deliver the single most splendidly incongruous moment of my entire festival – dancing to Slipknot’s “Duality” on one of the two channels of the disco, whilst those on the other channel were enthusiastically doing the YMCA.
In the days after the festival, the organisers asked a few questions for feedback on their Facebook page. Answering some of those questions seems like a good way to capture some of my overall feelings about the festival.
ATG: What would you keep the same for ATG 2014?
I think the site worked really well: it was small enough to get everywhere other than the fourth stage in a couple of minutes, but the stages were far enough apart to not interfere with each other. The positioning of the food stands meant it was easy to grab a bite to eat and still listen to the bands on stage, and the variety and quality of food on offer, given the relatively small number of stands, was excellent.
The alternating stage times worked fantastically, even if it did sometimes mean missing the first or last couple of songs of a set in transit between stages. One possibility would be something like a five minute gap between sets – but adding all those five minutes up over the day would mean that one less band would be able to play on each stage.
I think the involvement of the Damnation Festival guys worked really well for the second stage on Friday, so I’d like that to stay too. The bill for that stage alone was enough to get me through the festival gates.
I think the size is great, too – big enough to feel like a proper event, but small enough to stay friendly. Perhaps it could take another 500 or so and not lose that vibe, but possibly not much more than that.
One thing I’d like to stay the same that the organisers can’t really control is the general attitude of the fans. Pretty much all of us that assembled on the farm, it quickly became clear, had come to watch bands play. That was the default position, not sitting in the campsite drinking, so pretty much all the bands I saw played to very respectably sized crowds.
Oh, and handing out those colour-coded recycling bags was a masterstroke, and helped keep the campsite tidier than I’ve ever seen at a weekend festival.
ATG: What would you change?
Not a lot. I think the commonest complaint I’ve seen is about the lack of toilets, but I think that was considerably mollified by the fact they were the cleanest festival toilets I’ve ever experienced. But urinals at the second and third stages would have taken some of the pressure off. In more ways than one.
I would make the merch stand bigger and easier to browse. Alternatively, stands by each of the stages would make a band selling merch straight after their sets more straightforward.
Whilst the silent disco was fun, I was really in the mood for DJs spinning some ‘proper’ dance music rather than two competing channels of cheesy party tunes, so maybe a third channel is in order next time.
ATG: What bands would you like to see next year? How many would you have come back?
My chums and I talked about this over the weekend. We started off thinking that the bill was so comprehensive that it would have to be virtually identical next year, but we quickly found that we could think of a number of bands that would work with that type of crowd.
I think after the reaction this year ASIWYFA could probably return as headliners.For the other min stage headline slot, I think Battles would be amazing. Or The Melvins.
Below that, I think giving Nordic Giants the sunset slot on the main stage could be a thing of very great beauty indeed. I’d definitely like earthtone9 to come back again, maybe with a more off-kilter enhancement focussed set this time.
My personal wishlist of bands for the remainder of the bill would include *shels and/or Ancients, Latitudes, Subsource, The Barnum Meserve, Heights (the prog one, not the hardcore one), The Algorithm, Rosetta and, as a total wildcard, Belgian jazz mentalists Flat Earth Society.
Past that, I’m perfectly happy to entrust the band selection to the organisers again, because I had so many pleasant surprises watching bands I’d never heard of this time round. As I only managed to see about a quarter of the bands the bill had to offer, I think ArcTanGent 2014 could probably get away with a fair amount of overlap with this year’s bill.
The Bottom Line
If you’ve got this far, well done to you. It’s been a long ride.
As should have been clearly apparent, I had a really great time at Arc Tan Gent. The combination of the bands, the site and the general atmosphere was virtually flawless, and I hope that the festival becomes a fixture in the summer season.
The organisers spotted a gap in the already burgeoning festival market for a weekend of left-field, off-kilter, experimental music and filled it with aplomb, and the fans stepped up and gave the festival, and the bands that played, the respect they deserved. Kudos to all involved; I fully intend to be back next year.