Our newest writer Simon Clark is a regular attendee of the annual UK Tech Fest. Below, Simon highlights eight qualities of the festival he’s noticed over the years. Click here for info on bands, venues, tickets and more.
The inaugural Tech Fest weekend was held in a small community centre somewhere in the south of England back in 2012 and has remained an annual fixture on the UK’s independent festival circuit. 2013’s festival was held in an alarmingly spartan paddock behind a country pub on an exceptionally warm weekend. The festival then moved to Newark Showground in 2014, where it has remained, and steadily grown, ever since.
Regular attendees (more about them in a minute) therefore know exactly what to expect from their Tech Fest weekend, and as I myself have been every year since 2013, I feel pretty well placed to comment. So I’m going to exploit my familiarity with Tech Fest to lead you through some of it’s finer qualities. Hopefully, then you’ll see why it has become my favourite weekend of the year.
Before we go any further, just to allow those of you who are completely unfamiliar with Tech Fest to catch up and get on board, let’s just clarify the basics: Tech Fest was founded, in their own words, “based on the vision of creating a festival centred around musical innovation, creativity and diversity.” At the time of its inception, the underground progressive metal scene was practically bursting with extraordinary talents, and many of them coalesced on the bill in 2012 – Chimp Spanner, No Consequence, Xerath, Textures, Uneven Structure, The Algorithm, Destiny Potato, Monuments and Sylosis (who stepped in to replace the originally scheduled TesseracT), amongst many others. Almost all of these bands, with Sylosis and Xerath being the only exceptions, have returned to the festival since, along with a great many other luminaries from across the tech/djent/prog-metal spectrum, and I’ll talk about them in a bit more detail as we go.
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Tech Fest’s real heart and soul lies with a core group of regular attendees, many of whom have managed an unbroken run since their first visit. A considerable number of firm friendships were formed, especially in 2012 and 2013, through the combination of the relatively small attendance numbers and somewhat rudimentary facilities. These early festivals also gave the online communities centred around websites/social media groups like English Djentleman’s Quarters a physical manifestation, allowing folks to make the jump from being digital avatars to actual real-life people to each other. That makes a big difference.
This community spirit has been kept alive as the festival has grown since the move to Newark, with a general presumption that everyone should be as friendly, welcoming and generally not shitty to everyone else, no matter if it is their first year in attendance or their fifth. This is very refreshing and very relaxing. It might perhaps sound, to a skeptical outsider, like a bunch of tree-hugging hippy crap. I can see that, but it does feel less forced and contrived than it sounds. I don’t think it would be possible to deliberately engineer that kind of atmosphere, even if you wanted to. For old hands like myself, it takes just a matter of minutes to feel perfectly at home again on returning to the site each year, ready for another weekend of bands and spending time with people who I only speak to through my computer for the rest of the year.
With somewhere around 2,000 people on site, Tech Fest is run on a dramatically smaller scale to the major festivals like Download or Hellfest, which means one very important thing – a LOT less walking. No matter where you pitch up in the campsite, you’re not going to be more than a five-minute stroll (or a ten-minute weaving stagger) from any of the three stages, the various food stalls and – most importantly – the toilets and showers. If you’ve somewhat overcooked it the previous day and been baked out of your tent by 8:00am, this is an absolute godsend. Also, getting to the arena and realising you’ve left your wallet, ear plugs or inflatable flamingo in the campsite isn’t the end of the world, either.
What’s more, as the festival is held on a showground, the campsite is divided into a grid by tarmac roads, and has the excellent drainage one would hope for in a venue that often hosts large amounts of cattle. This means that in the event of a torrential downpour – certainly not outside the realms of possibility, as we found out last year – the site doesn’t become an impassable quagmire. Three months worth of rain in one hour? No problem.
It’s perhaps become less likely as years have passed, but it is fairly common for bands playing to hang out for the whole weekend, particularly those playing lower on the bill, so who knows who you might end up camping next to.
Whilst the musical remit of the festival is, and always has been, somewhat broader than its name suggests, Tech Fest couldn’t legitimately be called Tech Fest without some properly head-bending displays of technical prowess across the weekend. Interestingly, it does seem like the interpretation of ‘tech’ that has appeared to be the guiding philosophy behind the booking strategy has been one of inclusivity rather than exclusion, giving a home to a rather broader spectrum of bands. Which is nice. But let’s not forget why we’re here. It’s fair to say that, over the years, Tech Fest has played host to some of the very best of the best – I don’t know if it could even be called Tech Fest if Animals As Leaders hadn’t played, which of course they did in 2016. We’ve also seen the singular dual-neck wizardry of Felix Martin, the progtastic gymnastics of Between The Buried & Me, the frenetic proto-tech of The Arusha Accord and the tech-death of Obscura.
This year, Sikth are returning for a second headline slot, having played their second show after reforming at Tech Fest in 2014. It is no understatement to say that had there been no Sikth, there would not be a Tech Fest. Resurrected by the power of their posthumous influence, they’ll be back to show all the young things exactly how to do it. Elsewhere, The Hirsch Effekt are my single most highly anticipated set of the weekend. I am frankly in awe of latest album Eskapist, and I am desperate to see them bring their free-ranging, genre-straddling chaos to the stage again. Whilst they may not be as overtly ‘technical’ as some, I think they’re pushing what can be done by a trio into new and exciting places. That’s good enough for me.
That’s not all. During the day, whilst the two stages are alternating their way through a clash-free weekend, a selection of musicians and industry types will be holding a series of workshops and masterclasses to share some wisdom. In that context, you’ll be able to hear, The Hirsch Effekt’s Ilja John Lappin talk bass, Joey Izzo from Arch Echo talking keys and Ash Doodkorte of Voyager will be giving some insight into the dark art of drum programming. Alongside them sit a wide variety of guitarists and guitar makers, including some guy called Ola Strandberg. He has some wild ideas that I think might just catch on.
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A change is as good as a rest, and there is often no better counterpoint to complicated tapping runs in awkward time signatures than some no-frills, downtuned and dirty riffing. As I suppose the saying should read in this context, Black Tongue set the bar low in 2013, and Vildhjarta followed up in 2014. Then, in 2016, we were flattened by both of vocalist Chad Kapper’s projects, A Dark Orbit and Frontierer.
This year, the filth is being brought most conspicuously by two bands from the fearsome Holy Roar stables. The heavy hitting and ludicrously exciting Conjurer return to the Fest with a slot on the main running order, after laying waste to a late night afterparty last year. Conjurer are joined by the hardcore juggernaut of Employed to Serve, whose frenetic presence feels long overdue at the festival. They will be closing out the second stage on Sunday, and punters would be well advised to save just a little bit of energy for what is sure to be one of the most vigorous moshpits of the weekend. As I am old and brittle, I’m going to be taking up a safe vantage point near the back. Heart of a Coward are also back at the festival for the third time, to headline Thursday night. It’ll be their first with newly installed Tech Fest veteran Kaan Tasan on vocals, who played five straight Tech Fests in a row with No Consequence.
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At the opposite end of the spectrum entirely, there’s also always some space on the bill for some chilled-out, twinkly loveliness. Because, let’s face it, being furiously angry for four straight days would be exhausting. In Tech Fest’s history, there have even been a couple of acoustic guitars deployed in memorable fashion. Perhaps most notably, Glass Cloud‘s last-minute cancellation in 2014 left a gaping hole near the top of Saturday’s running order. It was filled, both improbably and masterfully, by Jon Gomm. Jon had a bit of a viral hit with “Passionflower”, which showcased his distinctive, percussive playing style, and attracted further attention from the Tech Fest crowd after joining forces with Dan Tompkins for a silky smooth cover of Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody”, which was given a singalong airing on the day.
Perhaps the other landmark set here would be Agent Fresco‘s achingly beautiful acoustic set in 2015. Having whetted appetites for the then-upcoming Destrier with a full electric (and electrifying) set the previous day, they reprised the choicest moments from A Long Time Listening in this stripped back form, a repeat of the dual-set approach they had taken at Euroblast the previous year. Remarkably, for a mid-afternoon festival set, the assembled crowd was quieter than a Monday morning tube carriage, and emotions ran high. There aren’t many bands who can actually make me cry, but Fresco managed it that afternoon. Extraordinarily powerful.
This year’s bill offers a couple of sets where breaking down is more likely than a breakdown – Denmark’s Vola will be bringing their polished melodic prog, and Polish post-metallers Tides From Nebula their expansive soundscapes. Instrumentalists Schiermann and Arch Echo will also be making their twinkly debuts at the festival, after a week of shows together leading up to the festival.
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The concept of the UK Exclusive festival performance seems to have gained more traction in recent years, which does speak to the increased competition for punter attendance across the festival season. Let’s face it, attending any festival without hitchhiking to site, sleeping under the stars, buying no merch, eating nothing but bread and drinking nothing but water is going to set you back somewhere in the region of £500, so most people can only commit to one or two weekend festivals a year, at most.
There have been plenty of notable exclusives and debuts to have graced the Tech Fest stages, reaching back to Skyharbor‘s UK debut in 2013. Most notably, Tech Fest has provided basically the first opportunities anywhere (outside of a couple of tiny warm-up shows) to see Plini, Sithu Aye, Slice the Cake and Frontierer. I witnessed all five of these debuts and, as I’m sure you can imagine, they were all special for entirely different reasons.
This year’s most tantalising exclusive, and European debut, comes in the form of Australian rap-metallers DVSR. With a certain degree of uncertainty over the future of Hacktivist following the departure of guitarist Timfy James, there is space for a new front-runner in the realm of bars and riffs, and it looks to be DVSR’s for the taking. This weekend will also be the only opportunity this summer to throw yourself around to The Acacia Strain at one end of the bill, if you like that sort of thing. As far as I can see, it’s also the first UK date for expansive instrumental metallers Stomb, which I’m sure will be worth catching.
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I suppose that when you try and get sixty bands in one place on one weekend, it’s just a matter of inevitability that one or two won’t actually make it. I’ve already mentioned Glass Cloud’s 2014 cancellation, but going right back to the beginning, Aliases were announced for both 2012 and 2013 but circumstances transpired against them. Destiny Potato, too, were prevented from attending two years in a row by visa issues and The HAARP Machine have failed to materialise on two occasions for….reasons. It’s probably some kind of conspiracy. And, of course, in 2017, The Faceless canceled. No surprises there.
This year, the festival has faced potentially its biggest line-up crisis to date, following the cancellation of Protest the Hero‘s entire European tour over concerns about vocalist Rody Walker’s voice. The domino effect has also forced planned tour-mates Norma Jean to pull the plug on their trip too, leaving the festival organisers with two big holes at the top of the Sunday night bill to fill, and virtually no time to fill it. But they’ve managed to turn it around – and in a slightly unexpected fashion. A slight reshuffle of the running order promotes Betraying the Martyrs to Sunday night headliners, and one of the two vacant slots has been taken by the tremendously exciting Loathe. As consolation prizes go, that is about as good as it gets.
The identity of the second new act, taking the main support slot, is shrouded in mystery. My shadowy network of contacts tell me that only the innermost circles of the tech fest organisation know who it is, and it is certain to stay that way until the day itself. It’s a bold move, to say the least – but, let’s face it, who doesn’t like a guessing game? Of course, I have my theories, and my hopes, but I’m not going to be so foolish as to actually commit them to print here. No gotcha moments to be had here, I’m afraid.
What I do know for sure, however, is that the organisational team behind Tech Fest do everything they can to deliver a memorable weekend, and if they think it’s a surprise worthy of being kept under wraps like this, I’m willing to trust them.
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See you there?