January is, by and large, a miserable time. I think we can all agree with that, even if we’re not being frozen solid like Chicago. With the excesses of Christmas rapidly becoming a distant memory, we are left with long, dark, cold nights, and largely empty bank accounts. I am sure that it was bitter experience that led to the first few weeks of the year being marked by a near-complete absence of shows for hardened gig junkies to attend. 2017 was a notable exception to this rule, as the UK was simultaneously blessed by a visit from Meshuggah, and Dillinger Escape Plan‘s farewell tour. As the London dates for both tours fell within a couple of days of each other, and I popped up to Nottingham for a second date of the Dillinger tour (one date on that tour wasn’t going to be enough for me to say goodbye to them), that was a most exceptional week. I think it’ll be a while before I have as eventful a January as that again.
Irritatingly, the first shows I could have attended for the year fell on a weekend where I was otherwise and unavoidably detained elsewhere, so in the calendar month of January, I managed to get to just two shows. Blast. But, as I mentioned in our inaugural Heavy Issues a couple of weeks ago, the barren wasteland of the opening weeks of the year are brightened with a few days of summer sun in the form of festival announcements. So we can have a little sort through them, alongside a few words about the pair of shows I managed to get to. Some of them are very exciting. Very exciting indeed.
As I only saw the two shows during the month, it feels a little churlish to single one out as Gig Of The Month. And, as we will see, neither was a complete and unqualified success. But we’ll get to that in a little while.
We may as well kick off with Download festival as it is the biggest metal festival hosted in the UK. It is also, probably, the festival I have the least interest in actually attending. Too many people, too much walking, and nowhere near enough of the types of bands I actually want to see. Call me a snob, call me an elitist – you’d probably be right. Either way, I genuinely do not understand why anyone would want to see an album playthrough from Def Leppard in 2019, but here we are. The top two stages are the usual collection of hoary old dependables and safe bets, with only Clutch on the Friday and Skindred on the Saturday holding any interest for me personally, even if many of my contemporaries are considering a return to Donington for the first time in many years to witness the return of Tool. Oh, and the minor matter of what is scheduled to be Slayer‘s final UK show. I guess only time will tell how final it ultimately proves to be.
The third stage on the Sunday currently boasts the highest concentration of acts I’d be interested in seeing. There’s the hype whirlwind of The Fever 333 (and I’m hoping we get a London club show around the Download weekend so I can witness the spectacle), the enigmatic crossover action of Black Futures, the anthemic Black Peaks and the rock-solid riff assault of Heart of a Coward. Elsewhere, Conjurer and Twelve Foot Ninja will be appearing, too. Which is nice, but nowhere nice enough for me to justify the time, effort and expense of attending.
Bloodstock, the UK’s largest extreme metal festival has sent the vocal segments of its change-resistant clientele into various shades of apoplexy by announcing Parkway Drive as their Saturday night headliners. They are, according to the battle-axes the wearing legions, not quite METAL enough for a festival which, this year, is being closed out by The Scorpions. No, I don’t understand, either.
Euroblast falls right at the tail end of the season, even if this year it is taking place in late September rather than early October. Other commitments on my time and annual leave allowances mean that Euroblast is definitely off the menu for me personally this year, but their first announcement definitely turned a few heads, if not necessarily for the right reasons.
Sitting at the top of their first announcement are Shokran and The HAARP Machine. Since HAARP were last seen on any stage anywhere, they have been announced for, and failed to materialise at, two Tech Fests and Dissonance Festival in Italy. Couple that with their magical disappearing crowdfunding campaign in December, and one has to wonder why any promoter is still giving them the benefit of the doubt. We will have to wait and see whether that benefit has been justified, but I certainly wouldn’t want to make expensive or non-refundable plans on the desire to see them play alone.
The remainder of the Euroblast announcement represents a fairly solid foundation upon which the bill can grow, even if there are few big surprises or exclusives to really set the bill off just yet. That is, of course, not to say that they won’t be coming in subsequent announcements. Probably the most notable inclusion so far is the announcement of Sleep Token‘s first show outside the UK – and their live show should work a treat on Euroblast’s main stage. Anima Tempo will be returning to the festival from their native Mexico, alongside personal favourites Hypophora, 22, Valis Ablaze and Siamese. So, whilst the Euroblast announcement might not grab you by the lapels in the same way as some of their peers, it’s still entirely plausible this bill will quietly build into something special. Let’s wait and see.
Tech Fest has become something akin to my spiritual home since I first attended back in 2013, and I haven’t missed a weekend since. However, much like Euroblast, their first announcement is rather light on big-hitters and big surprises. But, with that said, I don’t think anyone was expecting Dying Fetus to be sharing the top of the poster with festival stalwarts Monuments, who will be returning for their fifth appearance on a Tech Fest stage.
Tech Fest’s first announcement leans fairly heavily on the death end of the tech spectrum, with the pointy logos of Psycroptic, Archspire and Revocation looming large. But as if to prove it will not be a one-trick weekend, solo acoustic guitar wizard Jon Gomm will also be returning, after stepping in to fill the spot left vacant by Glass Cloud‘s cancellation in 2015. If you can find a more extreme switcheroo anywhere, I’d love to see it. Jumping back to the heaviness, Black Tongue will also be bringing their unholy beatdowns back to Tech Fest for the first time since 2013.
The other three bands which most interest me in Tech Fest’s first batch are all decidedly non-technical – Palm Reader‘s intelligent post-hardcore, 22’s emotive songsmithery and Hypophora’s exceptional and soulful alt-rock anthems. Again, much like with Euroblast, I’m expecting this bill to become considerably more exciting with subsequent announcements.
Before I get to the three festivals whose initial announcements have properly excited me, I will just pause briefly to mention Bad Pond festival, down in Brighton. I have long thought that if I was forced to leave the capital, Brighton is where I would most like to live. It has a consistently vibrant live music scene, which kicks out a steady stream of exceptional acts, many of whom will be appearing at this festival. I already had Three Trapped Tigers, Jamie Lenman, Poly-Math, Ohhms, Press To Meco and recent discoveries The Guts marked on my dancecard before I realised I would not be able to go. Fuck. But, the festival is clashing with Daughters first London show in God knows how long, and also with the second Holy Roar Records 4/20 all-day event, Holy Reefer. Double fuck.
My initial plan on how to deal with this hellish clash was to head for Holy Reefer to start the night off, the run upstairs to the larger (and most conveniently situation) venue hosting Daughters. The major sacrifice here is that it could well mean missing Boss Keloid. But, for reasons that will soon become apparent, that plan may change. Intriguing.
All is not completely lost from Bad Pond, though, as Three Trapped Tigers will also be headlining the second edition of the Portals festival. This festival is also held across the Dome and Boston Music Room complex which will be simultaneously hosting the Daughters and Holy Reefer shows I’ve just mentioned, albeit with a single ticket. I last went to an event that utilised both venues all the way back in 2014, when they formed two-thirds of the stages used for the Cult of Luna curated Beyond The Redshift, and the set-up works very well. The Portals line-up also features the first UK show for the splendidly named Samuel Jackson Five, as well as Poly-Math, Hypophora (who are clearly going to have an exceptionally busy summer) and Scots Halo Tora, with plenty more to come. Very promising.
Without question, the biggest new addition to the festival calendar this year comes in the form of Radar Festival, whose first announcement landed with a mighty whomp, virtually out of nowhere. Setting up shop in a new venue in Guildford town centre (a medium size commuter town just outside London, for international readers), it has the potential to become the UK equivalent of Euroblast, putting on a multi-day, multi-stage event in a club setting and without the need to spend the weekend in a campsite. Very civilised, especially for those of us who are getting on a bit.
It is perhaps surprising just how stuffed with Tech Fest alumni their opening announcement is, but with Tech Fest clearly exploring other parts of the tech spectrum, there is a little bit of a gap in the market. And, certainly, a little bit of healthy competition is generally good news for punters. It’s equally surprising just how strong the first announcement is – with Animals As Leaders, Monuments and Rolo Tomassi leading the charge, backed up by Toska, Vola and Car Bomb. The rising stars of Valis Ablaze, Harbinger, Sumer, Arcaeon and Mask of Judas also appear on the undercard, rounding the proposition out nicely. And the real sweetener is a one-off return to active duty for djent pioneers No Consequence, playing their first (and currently only) show since putting themselves on hiatus in 2017.
With the festival organisers already confirming that the running order for Radar will be set so that punters can catch the last trains back up to London if necessary, and whispers of an equally strong second announcement to round out their opening weekend, these guys clearly know what they’re doing, and I think it’s already damn near certain I will be attending. Well played, chaps.
Now, under normal circumstances, we would be stopping there, sitting back and congratulating ourselves for having an action-packed summer ahead of us. But we are not done yet, not by a long chalk. Having already established themselves as the go-to festival for all things prefixed either with a math- or a post-, ArcTanGent casually dropped the single most exciting partial announcement of the last five years. Maybe more. It was so extraordinary, when it appeared on my newsfeed during my morning commute, I made an audible noise and a ticket had landed in my inbox within ten minutes of sitting down at my desk. Lordy.
Admittedly, ArcTanGent has already given themselves a head start by announcing that Meshuggah would be headlining the festival in a stand-alone announcement just before Christmas. But their first ‘proper’ announcement delivered far more than any of us could have hoped for. I’m enough of a snob/elitist/discerning fan with particular tastes to be accustomed to finding the bands I’m most excited to be seeing in the small print at the bottom of any announcement. But this time, I found myself hooting and banging the table with glee at almost every single band big enough to justify the inclusion of their logo on the poster.
First and foremost, joining Meshuggah at the top of the bill are experimental trio Battles. For the sake of full disclosure, I should mention that Battles drummer John Stanier is pretty much my favourite sticksman of all time. He might not be particularly showy, but every single strike of his kit counts, and I always find his performances utterly mesmerising. Don’t expect much conversation out of me whilst they are playing. I attended the first ArcTanGent back in 2013, and I have been hoping since then that they would be able to secure a set from Battles at some point. That they are pairing with Meshuggah is simply perfection, and I confidently predict that no other festival will come even half as close to the excitement ArcTanGent have generated inside me with their headliners. I must remember to buy the organisers a drink for that.
But that’s far from all. Further down the poster, we find Cult of Luna, 2013 headliners 65 Days of Static, Daughters, Three Trapped Tigers (a busy summer for them, too), The Black Queen, noise terrorists Frontierer and Conjurer, as well as post-metal favourites Bossk. Among others. And that’s just the first announcement. I need a lie down just thinking about it. If the second announcement is even half as exciting as the first, you’ll probably be able to hear the soft pop of quirky music aficionados bursting across the country with the enormity of it all. Yes, I am unspeakably excited and, no, I’m probably not going to be able to shut up about it. Sorry/Not sorry.
Finally, while we are talking post-metal, Desertfest also announced that their Saturday headliner will be Amenra. The remainder of the Desertfest bill leaves me fairly cold, but I am strongly considering a day ticket just to see the bleakest Belgians doing their incredibly powerful thing. I must admit that I’m finding the name We Hunt Buffalo strangely alluring, too.
That’s quite enough of that. It is clear that we are increasingly spoilt for choice with festivals in the UK. I haven’t even touched on all of the festivals I could here, but no doubt we will do something like this again with the second round of announcements. So, look out for that and in case ArcTanGent deliver again, maybe put some towels down to be safe.
(First) Gig Of The Month – Mask of Judas, The Unicorn
I will admit that my first gig outing of the year nearly didn’t happen. The Unicorn is a pub sat out on the fringes of Camden, with a surprisingly professional stage set-up tucked in a far corner, and it operates on a free-entry basis (bands, as I understand it, are paid a cut of the bar take). Enticing people who haven’t had to buy a ticket off their sofas and out to a venue a shade under a mile away from the nearest tube station, on a cold and wet Sunday evening in the middle of January, is a hard sell for anyone. But opportunities to see Mask of Judas since the release of their long-awaited and excellent album The Mesmerist have been pointedly thin on the ground, which was enough for me to overcome the inertia, swap my slippers for actual shoes and strike out into the night.
But although I arrived at the show in time to see all four bands on the bill, none of the opening three – Parabyss, Skies of Titan and Outright Resistance – are especially enjoyable. None of them really offer anything original, or even take us on a well-honed journey over familiar ground. In each case, I don’t really see anything to hold my attention beyond the standard three songs I will give for any band. Which is a pity.
Now, it can be a dangerous business getting into what any given band may or may not objectively deserve. Nevertheless, I do feel confident in stating that there is far too high a concentration of talent in Mask of Judas for them to be playing in the corner of a pub on a cold Sunday night. It is now pushing six years since I first saw Mask of Judas perform and their path has been, unfortunately, a tough one. The inconvenient need to put food on the table and a roof over that table have clearly weighed heavily on the band, and it is even evidenced tonight by the absence of second guitarist Reece from the tour.
The other puzzle the band face is in really finding the right audience for their rich sonic stew. It is a heady mixture, with potentially the largest single component being old school death metal. But that certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, and there’s far more groove, experimentation and embellishment than one would expect in a historically conservative genre. Perhaps the most important deviation here is in the presence of actual choruses, and the impressive vocal range of frontwoman Jo, who pushes out gigantic and thoroughly ungodly bellows as well as dulcet, angelic tones and – on “Brand New ~Conquest” – a quick trip up into the dog-whistle registers that I had assumed would have been a stunt purely for the studio, so to see it brought to the stage is seriously impressive.
Although there is an unavoidable hole in the sound due to Reece’s absence, it is not an especially large on. Guitarist Sam and bassist George are all over their fretboards with spidery, technical runs, and drummer Jof locks them tightly together. Having had a stable line-up for many years, the band are as well-oiled a unit as you are likely to find – and perhaps it is this undeniable chemistry that has led them to be patient with the external commitments of various members, rather than replacing them to move more quickly. This, ultimately, is to be commended.
The set is drawn exclusively from The Mesmerist, and most of the album is aired. It is an absolute joy to watch them in full flight, and I just find myself wishing there were more people here to see it. However, the keen eyed amongst you may have noticed that they are appearing at Radar Festival over the summer, so hopefully some more people will be turned on to them, their genre-straddling sound and frankly peerless technical prowess.
(The Other) Gig Of The Month – Boss Keloid, The Black Heart
When I arrive at the Black Heart for my second show of the month, things are already not going to plan. Having made arrangements to arrive at the venue just after the door time of 8pm, as stated on the Facebook event and the tickets themselves, I miss the opening act entirely. It is only when stage times are posted around 6:30 that we find that the start has been brought forward to 7:30. Never mind, I thought, these things happen.
Looking on the bright side, I tell myself that at least I have arrived at the perfect time to catch Urne. I saw them relatively recently, at The Dev supporting Armed For Apocalypse, but tonight they are blessed with rather better sound. There’s a pointedly retro or traditional twist to their sound, and they seem to end up sounding like a combination of Metallica and Metallica’s own early influences, like Thin Lizzy and the NWOBHM bands like Diamond Head. There’s maybe also a hint of early Mastodon in there too. It’s testament to the quality of the songs that they keep me engaged despite not really being a fan of any of their obvious influences, and I’d be interested to see whether they continue to hold my attention on record. The performance is a little bit tough around the edges, but there’s clearly bags of potential and what appears to be a genuinely fresh take on some well-worn ideas. Intriguing.
I have seen main support Desert Storm previously too, opening for Karma To Burn on this stage last year. Once again, they smack us hard in the face with a sludgy take on Clutch‘s straightforward hard rock riffing. It is a big and potent sound, with the guitars sounding especially crunchy and vocalist Matt possessing a rich and throaty roar. However, their songs have a bit of a tendency to outstay their welcome, which rather over labours the point. Keeping song lengths closer to four minutes than to six would probably help them land with more potency.
I watch somewhere around 25 minutes of their set, and with the songs starting to blur together a bit, I head out for a smoke so that I can get in nice and close to the stage when everyone goes to the bar during the changeover. However, I get caught in an engaging conversation and don’t return to the live room before Boss Keloid are due to start their set. However, Desert Storm are still playing. Stage times had been slipping, despite the early start, but now it is reaching the point where it will impact on the available time for Boss Keloid to squeeze in a full set before curfew.
And impact it does. By the time Boss Keloid are ready to go, the show is running half an hour late, and they only have 30 minutes until the hard and fast curfew slams down. As such, for the second time in a row thanks to hear issues at their show here in November, Boss Keloid do not have have enough time to play their outstanding 2018 album, Melted On The Inch, in full. This, to put it mildly, is a frustration. The consolation is that we do get the first four tracks of the album, and the outro of fourth track Jromalih is my single favourite riff of the year, meaning they do go out on a hell of a bang, it’s just a shame that bang is so premature.
Insult is added to injury by the subsequent discovery that the main reason Desert Storm are not hurried offstage by the promoters is that they are actually in Desert Storm, and it does appear that they got just a little bit carried away with themselves. In fairness to them, corresponding after the event did bring forth a professional apology. I am, of course, disappointed that I didn’t get to see the album played in full, so I hope that another opportunity presents itself before they sequester themselves away to write the follow up.
Third time lucky?