Simon: It may only be the first full day of this festival, but as it is our fifth year in attendance, Team Monolith runs through our now standard morning routine with almost the same level of unspoken efficiency as a plane crew going through their pre-flight checks. Perhaps. Either way, we are (almost) all dressed, washed, collected and fed before the bands strike up at noon.
This particular day is a slightly unusual one for me personally, as there are probably fewer bands on today’s agenda that I want to watch than any other day over the last five festivals. This ultimately translates, towards the end of the day, to me spending longer on site without watching a band than I ever have before – but this is no bad thing. The organisers obviously can’t keep everyone happy all the time, and my extended break allows me to spend more than the standard few minutes catching up with folks in the Tech Fest community I don’t often get to see. I’m also conscious that the Saturday bill constitutes my busiest day of the weekend, so taking it easy today reduces the possibility of my mind melting to mush before Sunday afternoon.
Nevertheless, even though I have a quiet day ahead of me, there are still a clutch of bands I’m very much looking forward to seeing as noon rolls around and the stages lurch into life.
Having seen them a few times live now as well, it’s clear things are starting to come together. The multiple moving parts of Anguish‘s centrepiece “Freedom Of The Conscious Mind” work as well in the flesh as they do on record; it’s an ambitious song, with distinctive movements, so to see if pulled off so well is gratifying. Bassist Will Kitchener’s harmonising vocals work really well, and the song’s breakdown outro is a lot of fun - definitely a set highlight.
Vocalist Joel Pinder is really coming into his own as a frontman, with an energetic performance erring somewhat on the side of overexuberant at times, but that he’s so into the music is endearing. He’s joined on stage by No Consequence‘s Kaan Tasan – on-site, although not performing at Tech Fest for the first time - during “Panic“, to reprise his recorded cameo, which is always a nice touch.
I’m intrigued to see more material from the band in future – their trajectory is distinctly on the up – however with the loss of both guitarists since the festival, it might be a little while before we see them on stage again. Perfect time to write some more tunes, though.
Walking into James Norbert Ivanyi‘s set in full flow, I’m hit with the full weight of his bassist Liam Horgan’s absolutely thunderous instrument. It’s a monstrous thing in itself, and he clearly knows a thing or two about how to use it; if you couldn’t feel it in your chest, you were likely dead long ago.
Liam Horgan. James Norbert Ivanyi. Photo by Hannah Cole
James himself is a brand new face to the festival, but has drawn quite a crowd nevertheless. When you’ve come all the way from Australia, it’d be rude not to really, wouldn’t it? Besides, the barrage of notes coming from the stage is infinitely intriguing. Either way, it must make the journey they’ve made all the more worth it.
In the vein of countryman Plini, James is largely a solo composer; less pleasanty noodly prog, and more like a blend of Between The Buried And Me, Blotted Science and dabblings of Tool. Liam’s basslines travel their own path across the songs, providing a heavy counterpoint to James’ mix of spidery fretwork and shreddier fare. Every shift of gear throughout the tracks feels wonderfully organic, and with such masterful execution, it’s hard not to be both extremely taken and highly impressed. We do hope they’ll make the trip again.
James Norbert Ivanyi. Photo by Hannah Cole
Simon: Hieroglyph manage to prize festival production lynchpin Helen Tytherleigh out of her behind-the-scenes office for just long enough to make their second appearance on a Tech Fest stage. They are rewarded with a more than respectable crowd for this early in the day, and the size is reflected in the breadth of guitarist Sam Butterfield’s grin.
For a band that probably hasn’t been as active as they would have liked since the release last year of their rather splendid debut album Ourobourus, they look and sound remarkably together. The dual vocalists of Mark and Valentina mean that there are five of them bouncing around up there, and the stage is often a blur of movement. They run through a set largely drawn from Ourobourus, and portions of the crowd can clearly be seen to be singing along with their infectious and melodic tech-prog. Drummer Bradie Nixon comes unfortunately close to throwing a spanner in the works, seemingly only kept from straying too far from the tempo by the click track in his ears. However, with Bradie fired from the band before the end of the festival, this isn’t a problem they will have in the future.
Helen Tytherleigh of Hieroglyph. Photo by Hannah Cole
Drewsif Stalin’s Musical Endeavours are a true Tech Fest institution. First hopping over the Atlantic to join us in 2013, and following it up in 2014, Drew’s garrulous, larger-than-life persona has been a conspicuous absence from both the stage and the campsite in the intervening years. I mean, who else can maintain a reputation for being a party guy whilst borrowing most of the name of a brutal dictator? Unsurprisingly, Drew and his band draw in a headliner-worthy crowd in the middle of the afternoon. Indeed, Tech Fest is one of just a handful of places on earth where niche artists like Drew can get a taste of the type of reception more mainstream acts can receive at major festivals.
The band have been in the UK for a couple of weeks already, and have completed a quick lap of the country on tour with Monolith favourites Toska, and all four of them are decked out onstage in Toska shirts to mark the end of their time together. With this tour coming hot on the heels of a run in the States with Sarah Longfield, the band have a relaxed chemistry and familiarity with the material that allows them to indulge in all manner of almost cartoony and good-natured stage antics, rock god poses and theatrics, and giving vocalist Lee Mintz the opportunity to show of off his quite considerable range.
Drewsif Stalin. Photo by Hannah Cole
The stage antics make a lot more sense in a space like this than they did in the small London venue the tour rolled through the week before, but there’s still something of a disconnect between the goofy party vibe and the music itself. It’s often remarkably dense – dense enough for the absence of an onstage bass player not to really be felt – but equally, there is a noticeable absence of big hooks to really draw people in. Considering how Drew really came to prominence through covers of pop songs, this is really surprising.
Maybe it was a conscious move to distance himself from the past, but at the same time few artists can so effortlessly create this relaxed, playful, good-time vibe onstage. I can’t help but think that with a bit more focus in the songwriting that really plays to his strengths, Drew and his band could become quite a lot more than an internet curio – and, given how powerfully young he still is, there’s plenty of time for that to happen.
Lee Mintz & Drewsif Stalin. Photo by Hannah Cole
Unsurprisingly, the size of Drewsif’s crowd means that there is a somewhat diminished group of punters waiting at the second stage for the return of Valis Ablaze. However, a goodly chunk of people wander over directly from the main stage, and their numbers are further bolstered as the set progresses by those who have dashed off to either take on or offload fluids, or have a cheeky smoke/vape break in between bands.
Valis Ablaze had the slightly dubious honour of being the very first band to ever play on a Tech Fest stage in Newark, kicking off proceedings in 2014, but have gone through some significant changes since then. Valis 2.0 was properly unveiled at the start of this year, with the release of Insularity. I went through all the changes the band have been through in that review, so I won’t reprise them here. Today’s set represents my first opportunity to see this iteration of Valis onstage, and my expectations are high.
Wisely, the band choose to simply play Insularity in full, from top to bottom. This also showcases the virtue of releases with a ~30 minute runtime. It doesn’t take much more than the first song to confirm that the risk the band took in ditching previously written material and pursuing a new direction has paid off handsomely. Even little things like vocalist Phil’s microphone technique suggest an uncommon attention to detail. Working their way through Insularity‘s varied and engaging tracklist, it’s also clear this is familiar territory for many in the crowd around me.
With their sound that could perhaps be most concisely described as ‘TesseracT’s weightlifting younger brother’, Valis Ablaze are rapidly showing themselves to be the complete package. Delicate and wistful melodies, memorable, powerful choruses, a couple of inspired chord progressions, and some deceptively chunky riffs that translate very well indeed to the stage. On this showing, Valis Ablaze deserve a spot near the front of the pack of the new wave of British progressive metal bands. We already have a date in the diary to see them again, supporting Vola in Camden in August, and we can’t wait.
We’ve already waxed lyrical about Toska on multiple occasions in the past, so it’s probably unsurprising that their set is my most hotly anticipated of the day. Their progressive, instrumental ‘stunt grunge’ (a descriptor we’re going to keep using until it catches on) spoke to me pretty much instantaneously, and their jam-based approach, with minimal technological embellishment, appeals to the purist lurking within me.
Over the last few months, Toska have steadily been introducing more and more new material into their set. Today, Ode To The Author tracks serve as bookends, opening with “Illumo” and closing with “Chalk Teeth“. In between comes a whole host of new jams, some of which are starting to sound familiar through repeat listening, including London date of the aforementioned tour with Drewsif Stalin’s Musical Endeavours the week before the festival. It’s probably more than a coincidence that Toska went almost directly from Newark into a few days of studio time.
There’s one particularly chunky moment lurking in one if these new songs that I cant wait to hear on a recording, and it’s far from the only one. Even with a setlist stacked with unreleased material, the half hour stage time absolutely flies by. The broad range of tones and textures Toska can coax from their instruments is startling, and the fluidity with which the band move together through these complex arrangements is an absolute delight to witness. With each song it’s own mini adventure, Toska are a particularly timely reminder that strokey-beard cleverness and the straightforward thrill of a stomping riff need not be mutually exclusive.