Getting to Tilburg in mid-April to attend Roadburn has become the end of a pilgrimage for many and damn it, it does feels like home when you get there. Friendly and familiar faces everywhere, astonishing memories of past editions creeping in and the fervent anticipation of what’s in store that year (not to mention the unavoidable onslaught of fantasy booking of editions to come as the weekend rolls on). Though things have never quite stayed the same from one year to the other, this year something drastic happened with the complete revamping of the 013 building, to the point that not even the there days of the Netherlands Deathfest were enough to fully restore that familiar feeling. So it goes. Perhaps the biggest consequence of the change was to allow a considerably bigger attendance in the festival, which is great. However, this meant that smaller stages for which there used to be lines before became even smaller in the new scope of things. Nowhere was this more relevant in the room where we spent most of our first day, the Het Patronaat.
The former church annex has been host to quite a list of great performances over the years. A list that got bigger as soon as the 2016 edition of the festival started with The Poisoned Glass. In one of the most lauded festivals in the world, quite the group of people gathered in electric anxiety to witness show from a band that up until that point had released a grand total of two songs. Granted, this sounds a lot less weird when you take into account the band’s formation but goes to show just how well informed the Roadburn audience is. Besides, “Silent Vigil” more or less sounded like Burning Witch and Khanate had a nasty baby, so there was also that incentive. While some more melodic vocal passages didn’t quite convince us there (subsequent hearings of “10 Swords” cleared that up nicely), the rest went quite as expected, with a haunting bass driven instrumental flowing between minimal doom riffs and more layered drone-ish passages, on top of which a series of howls and whispers converged to make it all just the right amount of uncomfortable. Yeah, the bar got raised early this year.
The highest common denominator has pretty much become the standard for Cult Of Luna and they have only themselves to blame – carrying grandeur on their backs as a Sisyphean labour since “Salvation”, you cannot not expect excellence from the Swedish post-metal jackals; precisely the reason why we felt a bit disappointed the last time they played Portugal. But boy, oh boy, the restructured Main Stage couldn’t have had a better debut this time around. Throbbing the beats, sorrowfulness and bigger than life urgency that “Somewhere Along The Highway” still holds after a whole decade, the two-drummed beast proved how absolutely in control they can be when everything’s spot on. And things were spot on: a packed venue, a display of finesse mixed with disarming thickness, all the songs gushed off in such a freshly manner that we could have thought they had just been born a couple of weeks before. Mastering oneself might be the hardest task of all, but on April 14, 2016 CoL actually mastered themselves like an ancient Samurai, finishing with a state-of-art rendition of “Dark City, Dead Man”. Uff. And all the love for the man behind those stage lights, really, what a job well carried out. Congrats.
Sometimes, seeing a record you love being played in an otherwise perfectly fine show can fall flat due to the awesomeness of its predecessor in a festival. Due to how much I dig Inverloch’s debut “Distance | Collapse”, I’ll keep telling myself that this was why the death / doom the Australians played in the Green Room sounded so uninteresting. That the same happened a few years ago in their d.USK incarnation is slightly worrying (hey, maybe Winter did make everything else moot in the genre). Returning to the Patronaat to catch Der Blutarsch, one thing struck me as weird and I kept noticing during the rest of the weekend. Everywhere but on the Main Stage, people tended to cluster on the entrances instead of close to the front. Thus, in order to avoid the normal bar chit-chatter, glimpse what’s happening on stage and get a better sound, it often took some digging through until a free space was found. In this case, once we got there, the reward was the 20th year anniversary show of Der Blutharsch and the Infinite Church of the Leading Hand. The progression of Albin Julius’ main project over the years was on full display, with the performance focusing on the more psychedelic side recently exhibited. Mesmerizing and peculiarly groovy, it was that sort of journey that briefly erases from your mind the existence of others around you and of other shows to attend.
Along with Fórn, Primitive Man and Bell Witch, Portland-based Usnea might be the most interesting band to come out of the US doomed shadows in recent years. Their mournful and oppressive approach to the slowest realms of heavy is a withering ordeal, that only the toughest can endure live. Albeit short, their Green Room appearance might have been similar to what a Huxley-door-of-perception would look like if turned inside out: no freedom and polychromatic relief whatsoever, only fucking despair and the crumbling bleakness of the void. That sensation of “this is my last grasp of oxygen and all I see is black” captured the audience from the very first languid chord. A general sense of asphyxia that was only amplified by Joel‘s funeral doom vocals over “Detritus” and the blast beat whirlwind of “Chaoskampf”.
With Usnea over and out, it was time to get our daily fix of nasty sludge, courtesy of Cult Of Occult. In a show focused on their latest record “Five Degrees Of Insanity” – or at least the portion thereof we managed to witness. Behind the hooded figures stood projected a trembling version of the record’s cover, by itself seemingly a fucked up take on King Crimson’s legendary debut. In front of those same figures, humanity headbanged in fervour to the sludge doom being efficiently and nastily delivered. While not quite at the “sludge masterpiece” level of EHG and Fistula last year, theirs was still an accomplished mission.
They get better every time we catch them – Full Of Hell that is. We don’t know for how long their bodies will endure the punishment that they put themselves through each night, but perhaps this young crew has been developing some sort of keratin as a self-defense mechanism against all the noisy debauchery and grind vitriol. They’ve been metamorphosing themselves since “Roots Of Earth” but the outcome these days is far from being a dainty and delicate butterfly or even a remotely average-looking caterpillar – what they present is a livor mortis rotting creature, one eye popping out, embalming the whole room with a stench of putrefaction for twenty fast minutes. Lungs shrieking some acute harsh electronics whilst the relentless drummer in the back is trying to circumvent death metal, grind and powerviolence in single a lightning heartbeat. Short but grievous. Absolutely curious to see how they’re going to step up their game in a future LP, as they seem apt to try basically everything brutality has to offer.
As Misþyrming’s concert got nearer, the flood gates to the Patronaat had to be contained. No, we didn’t skip the Oranssi Pazuzu show, it just so happens that it was then the line to see the wunderkinds of Icelandic black metal started. With their recent fourth record “Värähtelijä” showing the Finnish purveyors of psychedelic black metal at their finest writing form, the high level of their performance probably only surprised those who were in the room waiting for the next performance (the same thing actually happened to us on Friday). An abrasive and psychedelic ebb and flow on top of a seemingly never ending simple, almost danceable, rhythmic pattern. Always engaging and ever evolving, very few collectives within the genre do it at their level.
Drained as I was, something soothing was in order. Turns out “something soothing” and “ritualistic, ambient drone” sounds similar to me so I went to the newest inclusion on the Roadburn family, the Extase venue (already familiar to Incubate attendees), where the Finnish invasion ranged on at the hands of Arktau Eos. Though the word “ritual” tends to get thrown cheaply as fuck these days, those big dudes more than justify it (the same holds for what NYIÞ did the second day). Their faces hidden, sonic landscapes built slowly and methodically mostly through guitars, and as a climax was yet to arrive, two glasses are then filled on stage, layers of noise start to die down and bells slowly ring. No, nothing sampled there, just the clinking of the glasses together as the two central figures embrace. Much more than merely interpreting songs on top of a stage, with Arktau Eos the connection between sound and physical performance is essential.
Well, “Jane Doe” is a trademark on its own; everywhere you look these days, there’s the record artwork on someone’s shirt, backpatch, hoodie, tote bag, ripped shorts… At this point, they can even try to do some “Jane Doe” flip flops, some “Jane Doe” curling stones or some “Jane Doe” sushi sticks and it would work out somehow. Irony at its best, as the album evolved around a sense of post-verbal anonymity, tailoring incognito wounds of emotional pain that very few (well, none, actually) have been able to emulate to this day. God, I do love Converge and my expectations were sending flows of anxiety down my spine by just picturing in my mind what “Heaven In Her Arms” would sound as I was standing amidst an overloaded crowd right before the start. And, then, “Concubine” goes off. And then it was like watching an animal in a cage. Converge, and this album particularly, are extremely intense. And not just emotionally speaking, but physically as well. Jacob needs his people, needs to hand out the microphone, the stage dives, the whole turmoil and outburst followed by some guy almost tearing up his own entrails screaming “Broken Vow”‘s lyrics as he tries to reach the frontman’s arm. That’s what we expect from Converge, we’re used to be out of breath right after the first five minutes. But the Main Stage was too much of a sterile place for them: the distance between the audience and the stage, the palpable sense of “controlled chaos” instead of “the hell with control, this is “Jane Doe” and perhaps we might not even be here tomorrow”… They nailed the songs, of course – the rendition of “Phoenix In Flames” was godly heavy and “Phoenix In Flight”, with Brodsky chiming in on the second guitar, was nothing short of beautiful, but it was like seeing Converge and not being with Converge. (Hardcore) punk isn’t built for huge venues, barriers and security guys, so, more than a historical evening, it could have been one of the best shows in Roadburn’s glorious resume had it happened at a smaller stage; even though we totally understand the occasion’s importance called for the Main Stage gravitas.
At the coziest Green Room, we found The Body. Zac, from Braveyoung, hitting the drums with the vehemence of a 19th century Ruhr miner and Chip trying to catch his breath after letting his tongue fly out of the mouth for one of those squealing howls of prostration. The Body, ladies and gents, dames en heren, doing the finest of their jobs and trades: transcribing failure, defeat, decay into a tyrannical mishmash of low-tuned opaque anthems. Ridiculously, absurdly thick, as if we were maggots trying to infiltrate and decompose a wall of cement, unaware of our own condition, oblivious to the task’s impracticability, because The Body is just too damn oblong and massive to allow interferences of any kind. Not too much ‘experimentation’ as one could expect from their recent studio efforts, nah, just pure pounding, ass-kicking Ali jabs right in the audience’s forehead, including “The City Of The Magnificient Jewel”. Thirty minutes, it’s over. The bruises were already vivid and we left «wanting nothing but death».
But, once more, did we return to the Het Patronaat this first evening, then to revel in the one hour mammoth of doom that was the Hell show. The solo band of M.S.W. becomes a quartet live, with its mentor handling lead guitar and most of the vocals, though for this tour we were all lucky to witness them with an added violin player for a good chunk of the performance. Though some technical issues prevented the show from flowing as perfectly as we’d have hoped, the simple way in which doom cadences got imbued with a sense of urgency before becoming gigantic during the heavier moments was fantastic. On the first and last songs, M.S.W. left the vocals to live drummer A.L.N., who happens to be the man behind Mizmor. What happens when a “black metal guy” with an excellent howl decides to treat a doom song as a black metal one is a thing of beauty. We got treated to that not once but twice and would have gone home with a belly full of music and good memories after this one – that would be nice and easy so of course we went through a slightly different path.
We wrapped our night at the lovely little Cul De Sac, where Nijmegen duo Dead Neanderthals levelled the presents in a way harsher than most “extreme” metal bands would be able to do. Imagine a rather noisy free jazz sax solo with a drummer playing an excruciatingly relentless fill behind it. Now stretch it for about forty-five minutes of non-stop head pounding and along which you start to recognize how well kept the whole pace is, as if a background had been written but instead of being played first to make your life easier before introducing the variations they decided to fuck making it easy and just went on full throttle the whole time. It not only sounded harsh, it was harsh to look at as well, not only because Otto Kokke sax playing induces shortness of breath on you and the René’s drumming is tiring just to watch but because of the lights. Think extremely bright, construction site level lights, put a few towers of them behind the band and it’s no wonder a handful of dudes were merrily watching the set with their sunglasses on. We couldn’t have come up with a better way to end this first night.