The sound of the ground opens up for a very successful first year – part 1!
The inception of new and interesting festivals is a rare occurrence in itself. So, the inception of a new and interesting festival that happened to be named after one of my all-time favourite albums was always going to get both my attention and, ultimately, my attendance.
And so it was with ArcTanGent, which promised a weekend of experimental and progressive music on a farm just outside Bristol. Boy, did they deliver. With around eighty acts playing on four stages across two-and-a-bit days, there was plenty on offer for anyone who likes their music a little more left-field.
Naturally, with so much going on I was always going to miss more than I saw, but I still managed to watch around 20 sets over the course of the weekend with plenty of pleasant surprises along the way.
For those who could escape reality a little early, the site and one stage opened on Thursday afternoon, with a couple of special treats to entice people in. The plan worked well, as it seemed like the site was between two-thirds and three-quarters full by the time headliners Maybeshewill took to the stage – but more of that in a moment.
My own party arrived on site just as the bands were starting, so we missed the opening sets of the day, but the strains of late additions to the bill Alright The Captain floating across the campsite sounded pretty interesting. The band latest EP, available on their Bandcamp here, showcases some quirky, lo-fi instrumental math-rock with some moments of hefty low-end riffing.
The first band that we physically saw was Talons, who set the tone nicely for the weekend. In this line-up, instrumental bands were closer to being the rule than the exception they often are. Most of these bands had some kind of unique selling point, and for Talons it is the presence of a violinist in their ranks. The strings give their surging, riff-driven and math-infused post-rock a haunting edge. Their debut album Hollow Realm was released towards the end of 2010 (pick it up on their Bandcamp here), and I was certainly left hoping they release something new in the not too distant future.
Manchester’s Amplifier have been long-time stalwarts of the progressive rock scene. Comparisons with the late, lamented Oceansize are now completely inescapable following the recruitment of guitarist Steve Durose to Amplifier after Oceansize disbanded. The band have some serious and visibly frustrating technical issues to overcome, and as a result don’t actually start playing until 20 minutes later than their scheduled slot. Nevertheless, their accomplished spacey prog-rock has brought a sizeable but largely patient crowd to the stage. The band play a tight and uptempo set, with “Interglacial Spell” from 2011’s The Octopus, and “The Wheel” from the recently released Echo Street album being particular highlights.
The real draw for the Thursday crowd, however is Maybeshewill’s headline slot, playing a set voted for by the fans themselves. As a result, pretty much everyone on site was crowded around the tent to catch the show. It’s hardly surprising that each track was welcomed with a rapturous response from the audience. The set seemed to be largely culled from the bands earlier, more energetic material, and with the band soon to set out supporting Dillinger Escape Plan around the UK, I suspect we’ll be hearing a set more heavily weighted in this direction than their more contemplative recent work. The band did play “Not For The Want Of Trying”, my personal favourite Maybeshewill track, but the knock-on effects of the technical issues experienced earlier in the evening led to the band being forced by the strict curfew to stop very abruptly, one song short. Under normal circumstances, this would be irritating, but when that last song is the track that received the most votes from the assembled fans, there was a palpable sense of outrage.
In the heat of the moment, the band’s spokesman openly blamed Amplifier from the stage, which may not have been particularly fair or professional – but, we all say things we don’t completely mean when faced with an insurmountable frustration. The consolation, for both the band and the fans, was that they would be reappearing on the main stage the next day, so all was not completely lost.
In some ways, although the curtailment of the set was a frustration for many, robbing that first night of its climactic moment, it may have proved to have been a blessing in disguise. With this clear and present example of the knock-on effects of set over-runs in the minds of everyone, all the stages ran with an almost military precision for the remainder of the weekend.
The festival site was thoughtfully laid out, with the third stage sitting on the edge of the main camping area, so we didn’t have far to stagger to watch Polymath, a Brighton-based instrumental trio open the stage with their quirky, perky, angular math-rock. The tent fills out impressively quickly, which is a characteristic that permeates the whole weekend, with the festival crowd far more interested in watching bands – any bands – than just sitting in the campsite drinking.
In Polymath’s case, this means they play to a crowd somewhat larger than the 270 or so people that have liked their Facebook page so far, which will no doubt help raise their profile. I think it is still early days for these guys, and I’m not sure they’ve quite found their voice yet, but the signs are very promising for them, and they definitely went away with some new fans. Check out the Bandcamp here!
We then ambled over to the main stage just in time to watch Baby Godzilla almost destroy it completely. If anyone was having trouble waking up on site, Baby Godzilla’s ramshackle, noisy hardcore would almost certainly have shaken them into consciousness. To say the band are energetic would be a profound understatement; throwing themselves around the venue – not just the stage – with little regard to their own safety – or anyone else’s for that matter. Guitarists Matt Reynolds and Jonny Hall are the most adventurous. Matt manages to clamber up one of the sizeable support pillars with both his guitar and microphone in tow, to bellow and play at a height where injury would be inevitable had he lost his footing. The stage crew look more than a little alarmed. Jonny, playing in the middle of the crowd asks “I need a microphone stand – who wants to be it?”
It is one hell of a show, even if sometimes the band’s activity makes it difficult to actually listen to the songs themselves. But, listening to the recently released Knockout Machine EP, it does seem that they have the songs to back it all up. Definitely worth checking out if they come and play near you…but you might want to take a crash helmet.
On the second stage, curated for the day by the splendid people of the Damnation festival, the tempo drops dramatically with Carlisle trio Manatees. The band give us 30 minutes of atmospheric doomy post-metal, driven by a truly gargantuan bass tone that sets many heads nodding. Things have been relatively quiet in the Manatees camp of late, and the preceding night’s show in Liverpool had been their first in nearly a year, but there seemed to be no apparent signs of rustiness. The band’s second album is due via Shelsmusic in the next couple of months, and the band have a short run of dates with French post-metallers Erlen Meyer booked in for November but, in the meantime, their 2006(!) debut album can be found here.
Staying put by the second stage, up next is Leeds-based Humanfly. It is testament to the quartet’s prog-rock credentials that their 30 minute set only allows them the time for four tunes from latest album Awesome Science. Falling somewhere between Oceansize, Pink Floyd and King Crimson, the band lose themselves – and a good proportion of the audience – in their extended, dynamic, jam-based songs. It is possibly a little on the self-indulgent side, but when a band functions this well both as individual musicians and a cohesive unit, that can be forgiven. Awesome Science had already found its way into my record collection, but for whatever reason I hadn’t given it much attention. Their set underlined to me the need to remedy that situation as soon as possible – available for you lucky sods here.
I didn’t hang around to catch Winterfylleth’s set, but walking away from the stage I did overhear an anonymous punter say “They have ‘winter’ in their name, they HAVE to be black metal”, which certainly made me chuckle on the way back to our tent for a bit of a break.
I returned to the Damnation stage, just in time to see heavy post-metallers Devil Sold His Soul. New vocalist Paul Green seems to have settled into his role well, covering both the screamed and sung passages with equal ease. The sextet certainly kick out a full, dense sound. However, apart from the ruinously heavy “As The Storm Unfolds” from the band’s debut album, and a couple of head-turning moments in the remainder of the set, they don’t fully manage to hold my attention. The band’s sound definitely seems to work better at slower tempos – but they don’t quite do it for me. For me, I think Devil Sold His Soul will always be haunted by the ghost of Mahumodo and would need to produce something truly exceptional to break free of that. This is probably unfair and irrational, and it’s highly likely that won’t be a problem for most people. It’s also the case that my biggest stumbling block with the band in the past has been the vocals, so it will be very interesting to see what Paul brings to the party when the band next enter the studio.
My second-most anticipated set of the day comes from recently reactivated post-metal quintet Bossk. Emerging from a cloud of dry ice (and some ‘other’ smoke) they launch into “Define” from their second EP. Colliding blissed-out atmospherics with towering, primordially heavy riffage, Bossk play what, to me, could be more accurately be described as stoner metal than the procession of recycled 70′s grooves that habitually gets awarded that moniker.
In a similar fashion to Latitudes, Bossk deal with the problem instrumental bands often encounter with flagging attention spans by introducing vocalist Sam Marsh about halfway through the set. Despite his fairly unassuming appearance, he unleashed a truly fearsome bellow. This proves to be a bit much for the couple standing immediately in front of me, who turn and exit within moments, but for those of us that have acquired the taste, it is a welcome change of dynamic. This change is underlined by “Pick-Up Artist“ the sole post-reunion track to have been released to date, and by far the most energetic.
Bossk shows have been relatively sporadic since their reactivation, but with work on a new album in full swing and a freshly signed deal with Deathwish Inc. in their pockets, I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more from them in 2014.
To be scrupulously honest, I just don’t get black metal at all, but considering the buzz around Dragged Into Sunlight, I thought I would at least give them a go.
There’s a certain pleasing irony that it is in the run-up to, and during, the band’s set that the heavens open and the site experiences the only rainfall of the whole weekend. It couldn’t have been planned better.
A skull-adorned candelabrum takes the front and centre spot on the stage as the band file out and play with their backs to the audience. This is how they remain throughout the set. The effect is somewhat spoiled by the bass player being forced to turn around every now and then to provide backing vocals, and I am puzzled as to why the microphone wasn’t simply placed so he could maintain his position.
The closest I’ve seen to this in the past is when Cult Of Luna played entirely in silhouette. In both cases, the idea seems to me to be better in theory than in practice. I think that one key aspect of any live show is the connection between the band and their audience, which is broken by their decision to face the other way. I can absolutely understand the desire to buck convention, but sometimes you have to admit that the convention exists because it really is the best way to do things.
Musically, it is a torrent of blustery riffs, anguished howls and more double kick than a sanctuary for angry donkeys. It doesn’t really speak to me, and I find it all a bit over the top. It would also be fair to point out that a chap I spoke to on Saturday used the phrase ‘over the top’ to describe why Dragged Into Sunlight played his favourite set of the day, so I guess it is a case of different strokes for different folks. Check out their stuff here if you haven’t yet come across them.
No matter what else happened this weekend, earthtone9‘s set was always likely to be a highlight for me. A conservative estimate would make this my tenth et9 show, and the promise of a set heavily skewed towards the 2000 album that gave its name to the festival was properly tantalising, and at least half the reason behind my own presence.
They didn’t disappoint. After kicking off with “Tide Of Ambition” from their comeback EP, they played the majority of arc’tan’gent, before reaching deep into the archive for “Vitriolic HSF” from the 1998 debut lo-def(inition) discord, and rounding off the set with “God Cloud” and “March of the Yeti” from this year’s IV album. The most notable omission from arc’tan’gent was the final track “Binary 101″, which used to serve as the band’s staple set-closer, but its eight minute plus duration was simply too long for the tight time constraints of a festival set.
A particularly pleasant surprise was the appearance of Ishmael Lewis to sing the expansive “Yellow Fever”, as he did on the album itself. Ishmael used to sing in Liberty 37, and their 2001 album God Machine is something of a forgotten classic and still worth checking out, if you can find a copy anywhere.
It would be fair to say that the band are just a little off their full fighting weight, but with only a handful of shows played this year, and a set crammed with unfamiliar songs, this can be excused.
The other slight disappointment is that the assembled crowd feels a little sparse, so I can only assume that many of the festival-going fans of the band got their fix at Download and/or Bloodstock. But, even if slightly smaller in number, they were vocal in their appreciation, and I think there were more than a couple of new converts in the tent, too.
Earthtone9 rank in the top ten of my all-time favourite bands, so it’s probably unsurprising that their set is the stand-out of the day for me, and in joint first for the whole festival (see Part 2 for the other contender). Catch up with the recently reunited band’s exploits here!
We round off the day with 65daysofstatic headlining the main stage. The alternating stage times mean the band are already at least one song into their set by the time we get there. The main stage sits at the bottom of a small hill, so standing further back affords a view of the impressive light-show, and the very sizeable crowd bouncing around in front of the stage. This does make me wonder if part of the reason the second stage wasn’t packed out for earthtone9 is because people were securing their spots for this set.
65daysofstatic put on a show that’s about halfway between a ‘normal’ gig and some form of futuristic rave, similar to that shown in the second Matrix movie (albeit not as cheesy). From my vantage point, it all looks spectacular. However, by this point in proceedings I am feeling just a little spent, and my attention does start to wander after a few tracks. It is recaptured by an outing of “Retreat! Retreat!” from their debut The Fall Of Math, which brings back memories of watching them play the song at the Joiners Arms in Southampton around the time of its release in 2004. They’ve come a long way since then.
Whilst I may not have been completely swept away by the set, it does feel like a fitting end to a very successful day. 65daysofstatic are not an obvious choice for a for a festival headlining act; that their fairly challenging music can receive such a strong response from the assembled crowd illustrates neatly the acumen of the organisers for spotting the gap in the festival market for experimental music, and filling it with such aplomb.
Because my party and I are not as young as we used to be, as the band leave the stage we head back to a remarkably well behaved campsite to unwind, and prepare ourselves to do it all again the next day.
To be continued…