Disco Loadout Festival Special – Portals and Radar

The Load-In

In the gig calendar, summertime means one thing: Festivals. Those of you who are paying attention may have noticed that there was no Disco Loadout last month, for various non-disclosable reasons. Subsequently, my ability to attend many shows in July has also been rather limited as well. But what this gives us is the opportunity to focus a little bit more attention on two small, independent festivals that I had the pleasure of attending – Portals and Radar.  Conveniently for those of us that are getting on a bit, neither festival is a camping affair and both take place in ‘regular’ venues rather than on temporary stages in a field – Portals in London and Radar in Guildford (a commuter town 30-60 minutes outside London, depending on whether or not you get the fast train or the stopping service). Both festivals have been able to put together impressive bills combining emerging talents with firm favourites amongst the communities they have been designed to attract. Both festivals (spoiler alert) were a tremendous amount of fun. And both festivals featured Agent Fresco. I might perhaps have mentioned it in passing, but Agent Fresco are one of my absolute favourite bands currently in existence. So rather than talking about them twice, I’m going to lead off by talking about both sets of theirs simultaneously.

A Tale of Two Frescoes

Since being first made aware of Icelandic quartet Agent Fresco in 2013, by the enthusiastic ravings of a small and intrepid bunch of UK fans who were blindsided by them at Euroblast 2012, I became rapidly and overwhelmingly smitten by their emotionally charged and math-tinted art-rock. Their 2010 debut album, A Long Time Listening, is a heart-rending exploration of vocalist Arnor Dan’s emotions following the death of his father. It is both extraordinarily beautiful and uncommonly beautiful, blending an intricate technical deftness with immediately accessible songwriting. I first witnessed their live performance on their return to Euroblast in 2014, where they played electric and acoustic sets on consecutive days. The contrast between these sets was profound – the first joyous and uplifting, the second delicate, vulnerable and unspeakably moving – I certainly was not the only person in the room with damp eyes that night, I can tell you.

Since that time, they have released their second album, Destrier, another concept album this time dealing with the complex web of emotions Arnor Dan experienced following an unprovoked violent attack on him on the streets of Reykjavik. If you’ve not experienced Agent Fresco’s music to date, this album is the place to start. It is also the most recently released album currently sitting in my all-time top ten. So there’s that. Beyond that, I’ve also taken almost every single opportunity that has been presented to watch them play, so Portals and Radar represented the 11th and 12th Fresco performances I have experienced.  So, you see I am quite the fan. 

It has now been four years (almost to the day, as it happens) since Destrier was released, and these isolated summer festival shows have been slotted in to the recording schedule for its successor, with the band flying in and out of the UK for those performances alone, rather than bulking out the trips with additional UK or mainland Europe dates. As such, for both shows there were a few visible cobwebs, and the band aren’t quite as fluid and practiced as they have been in the past. But, let’s be clear, an Agent Fresco operating at 90% of capacity is still a show worth seeing.

Their time away from active duty is made most apparent at Portals, where the start of the set is delayed by persistent problems with their in-ear monitor systems, but all of this is forgotten as they launch into “Howls”, one of the more upbeat moments from Destrier. Indeed, the setlist for both of these shows was identical, and not significantly changed since their last London show supporting Leprous back in 2017. We do, however, get at least one brand new, unreleased song – and it bodes particularly well for Destrier‘s successor, which we should get to hear next year. So whilst they may not have been the very best sets I’ve ever witnessed from the band, there is something unmistakably magical about watching them play. The sets also confirmed that it is physically impossible for me to watch them play the thoroughly extraordinary “Eyes of a Cloud Catcher” without closing my eyes. There can not have been many better ways to round out the first day of Portals and – for me – the whole weekend at Radar, as I had nipped around the corner to the train station and was on my way back to London probably before they’d finished breaking down the drum kit. I am sure that once they are finished in the studio and are back performing more regularly again, they will be back to full strength in no time at all.

Portals Festival – 8th-9th June, London

Portals eases me into the festival season gently as the first multi-stage, multi-day event of the year. Now in its third year, the festival commandeers two of my familiar North London haunts – The Dome and Boston Music Room – which are conveniently situated on top of one another (although in some peculiar architectural quick, the larger of the two, The Dome, is upstairs. I don’t know how that works, either). Additionally, there is also a tiny third stage buried in the bowels of Aces & Eights, a bar that usually serves as a rendezvous point for regular shows and shares a complex, five way junction with the other venues, a clutch of takeaways and Tufnell Park tube station. The organisers have curated a bill for the weekend stuffed with a mixture of established favourites and rising stars largely featuring either the prefix ‘math-‘ or ‘post-‘ in their genre descriptors.

It would be fair to say that the broad scope of the bill only partially overlapped with my personal tastes, so there were a couple of points (most notably in the run up to Agent Fresco’s set) where the bands didn’t really speak to me.  This includes a particularly rare performance by McLusky*, who were darlings of the punkier end of the noughties Brit Rock scene before dissolving, and now play (very) occasional shows, with the asterisk appended to their name a nod to absent original members. For this show, original bassist/vocalist Jon Chapple is replaced by St Pierre Snake Invasion vocalist Damien Sayell.  With the band having passed me by first time around, I don’t really have the context, but the delighted and vigorous moshpit suggests that I’m in the minority in the room. They do have an endearing line of self-depreciating humour, though, best exemplified by guitarist Andy Falkous’ ‘Poundland Shellac’ t-shirt, a phrase they have claimed for themselves from media criticism. That’s a nice touch.

In the ‘dependably excellent’ category, alongside Fresco, are Hypophora, Poly-Math and Palm Reader. All three bands, as I’m sure you are now aware from their regular appearances in this column, are firm personal favourites, so I won’t linger here too long. Hypophora’s early Saturday afternoon set, drawn exclusively from last year’s excellent debut  Douse, showcases their new drummer, Aaron, who already seems comfortably installed after just a couple of shows with the band. As I’ve almost certainly said before, the band possess a maturity far in excess of their terrifyingly young average age which particularly manifests in guitarist Karum’s fluid, Frusciante-esque riffs and in vocalist Katie’s extraordinarily soulful tones. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait too long for Douse’s successor and – presumably – world domination.

The main stage at The Dome is easily the biggest stage I have seen Poly-Math play (outside of ArcTanGent, anyway) and a particularly far cry from the tiny patch of bar-room floor I saw them battle feedback on at Bad Pond earlier this year. They did have one brief moment of all encompassing feedback, which I learn was caused by the engineer dropping his phone on the sound desk. That’s a new one. Fortunately, it doesn’t put them off their stride and their dense and improbably twitchy instrumental prog comfortably fills the space. We learn from Palm Reader vocalist Josh’s between song banter that he only arrived at the venue a few short minutes before their allotted stage time, and is subsequently feeling rather frazzled. As pretty much the only band on the bill that can meaningfully use the suffix -core in their genre descriptor, they perhaps don’t get quite as energetic a response as they might expect – before one song, Josh encourages the crowd to ‘nod your heads, for fucks sake’ and towards the end of the set offers thanks for ‘standing in from of them’. But a little bit of belligerence feels appropriate, fitting neatly with the simmering anger that underpins the excellent Braille material.

My absolute favourite non-Icelandic set of the whole weekend came early on Sunday afternoon, with AA Williams. I had seen her play a stripped back, piano-led version of her set supporting Amenra a couple of months previously, but this is my first proper encounter with the full live sound.  And it really is all-encompassingly beautiful.  As it is only the second set of the second day, a quite large proportion of the crowd haven’t quite made it back to the venue, but it does give us early birds the space to stand apart, eyes closed and gently swaying, as wave upon wave of this gorgeous yet desolate sound washes over us.  The mix on the main stage, as it is for most of the weekend, is fairly bass heavy, and this particular treatment emphasises the fact that AA Williams’ music has broadly the same relationship to post-rock that Portishead has to trip-hop.  Her backing band tastefully fill the sound out, and the set is played with a tasteful restraint that allows the louder sections of the set to really swell.   She is opening the main stage on Friday morning at ArcTanGent, and I really can’t think of any better way to  shake the last remnants of Thursday night’s silent disco from your hair.

By a bizarre twist of fate, the act that AA Williams directly clashes with on that ArcTanGent Friday morning is one of a trio of bands I had a particularly pleasurable first exposure to at Portals – Bristolian trio Hexcut.  Playing smooth, jazzy, keyboard-led instrumentals blurring the lines between electronic and acoustic music in similar ways to Three Trapped Tigers, and landing somewhere between GoGo Penguin and Mouse on the Keys.  Clearly a young band, these guys are obviously very talented and practically dripping with potential.  Their set, incidentally, was also my sole adventure over to the third stage of the event and I discover that the tiny space is located almost directly underneath Aces & Eights’ pizza kitchen, so I emerge sated by Hexcut’s melodious and mellifluous sounds and also ravenously hungry.

I also had a rather too brief encounter with Luo, an electronica duo whose drums-and-keys configuration immediately brings to mind Nordic Giants, and similarities with Three Trapped Tigers and Vessels are also apparent in the music. But what I did hear spurred me to go and investigate their Bandcamp page, and fans of any of those three referenced bands will find some nice surpises lurking in there.  At completely the other end of the spectrum, I saw instrumental metallers Telepathy for the first time in a number of years.  I had previously written them off as having a bit too much of a black metal sound, but it appears that in the interim, those elements have taken a step back, and they are now an altogether doomier, riffier proposition than I recall.  Where they are now is much more firmly in my wheelhouse, making me regret not listening to 2017’s (I now realise) excellent Tempest album sooner.  Still, better late than never. 

As I said up at the top, I was fully aware going in that there was a good chunk of the bill that I was either unaware of, or already aware was not to my tastes.  But even with the bands I saw I didn’t really connect with, I could absolutely see the quality in what they are doing.  The Portals organisers definitely curated an engaging and diverse bill that brought in a broad cross-section of experimental music fans, and in between the bands I had numerous interesting smoking area chats with folks making the decision to attend for completely different reasons to my own.  Although it seems that literally everyone on site was either already clutching ArcTanGent tickets, or desperately figuring out how to afford them.   From a practical perspective, the Dome/Boston Music Room complex doesn’t quite have enough space – especially outdoor space – to make spending an entire weekend there a particularly comfortable affair, but the quality of the music on offer made an absence of comfortable seating a sacrifice worth making.

Radar Festival – 2nd-3rd August, Guildford

There’s no denying that Radar Festival made a most almighty whump when it dropped it’s inaugural line-up into the already busy, but largely unsuspecting British festival calendar.  Pulling together some of the heaviest hitters and brightest emerging talents of the thriving progressive metal underground – and a few choice additions from further afield – Radar constructed the strongest bill for the opening year of a festival we have seen for some considerable time.  As the organisers told us when I interviewed them a couple of months ago, they stumbled upon the venue almost by accident, realising that it was possible to hold a multi-stage, multi-day event in a slightly dilapidated venue slap bang in the middle of Guildford.  

It’s fair to say that Radar’s practical configuration has been directly influenced by Euroblast, and they have put their venue to work in almost exactly the same way Euroblast utilises Essigfabrik, albeit on a slightly smaller scale.  Radar’s venue, optimistically named the Casino nightclub, is the peeling epitome of ‘faded glory’, with gaudy chandeliers and an enormous, dust-festooned glitterball hanging from the arched ceiling of the main room.  But, with that main room sitting on top of a second stage around a third of the size, an entirely separate room to set up the merch stand, a Long Branch Records booth and promo stands for festival sponsors among solid but fusty pieces of leather furniture, as well as two outdoor spaces to smoke in/escape to when necessary, the rather cheesy decor gave a remarkably practical space it’s own unique charm.

The weekend schedule follows the alternating stage approach, which appears to have become pretty much the standard for the smaller festivals.   It is absolutely the best format for a festival, but at times it can be a bit of a double-edged sword.  Especially with the second stage having such a significantly lower capacity, a little bit of strategic planning was necessary to guarantee a spot in the room.  Not to mention the logistical hurdles of fitting time to smoke, visit the bar or bathroom and simply say hello to the numerous familiar faces around the building whilst trying to watch four bands back-to-back.  But that this problem even emerges is simply a testament to the overall quality of the bill, or at least how closely it tracks with my personal tastes.   My general strategy was to switch stages during the last song of the set – across the bill, there are around a dozen bands I’ve seen play more then ten times, so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect.

Nobody, however, really knew what to expect from the mysterious ‘secret act’ billed on the Friday main stage.  A huge white curtain was brought across the stage to mask the changeover, so the secret was kept right up to stage time.  It is fair to say that when the curtains parted, presenting local electro-punk duo Black Futures, flanked by a small army of individuals wearing white Hazmat suits and gas masks, people were surprised.  Their brash, jagged noisy sound is an abrupt change of pace from the proggy Uneven Structure, who had preceded them on the main stage.   It’s also worth mentioning here that Black Futures themselves have undergone quite a radical change of direction in recent years.  I had a particular soft spot for the band that Black Futures was, when they changed their name from Subsource in 2014. However, their sound back then was a bass-heavy dubstep-metal hybrid.  But with two members leaving in fairly quick succession, the remaining duo withdrew and recalibrated the band entirely – and this is the first opportunity I’ve had to see them play since that change of direction.

Now, I fully appreciate the unfairness of my prejudices, and it is really more appropriate to treat Black Futures 2.0 as an entirely separate band rather than a progression from what they once were, but it is still the case that in general terms I much prefer a thick dubstep groove to spiky tribal industrial, so I probably wouldn’t have connected even without my pre-existing relationship. However, with that said I absolutely appreciate both the spectacle of what they are doing, and the bold risk taken by the festival organisers in presenting the set in this manner. It’s certainly not their fault that the speculations circulating around the identity of the secret act hyped expectations for a prog-metal heavy hitter like TesseracT or Sleep Token with no evidence for that whatsoever. Most importantly, though, Black Futures appearance pushed the boundaries of what we can expect from Radar in the future out well beyond a tried and tested collection of technical metal bands, and that has to be a positive development. Black Futures may not have been for everyone, but those who did stick around for the duration of the set clearly had a tremendous time.

A special performance always helps to give a festival a sense of occasion, and for many, the one-night-only re-emergence of No Consequence from their hiatus provided that moment.  Although No Consequence as a unit has been inactive, none of the members here today (guitarist Harry Edwards is sadly absent) have been that far from a stage in the interim.  Vocalist Kaan obviously has his hands full with Heart of a Coward, and the remaining trio have been regularly performing in their Limp Bizkit tribute act, who will effectively be the last band to play at the festival, during the Saturday night afterparty (but, with commitments back in the capital, I will be long gone by then).  Consequently (ho ho), No Consequence hit the stage like they’ve been away for two weeks rather than two years.  Further buoyed by a practically tangible wave of positive energy from the packed-out second stage and blessed with potentially the cleanest, crispest heavy tone of any band in the room that weekend, they absolutely smash what amounts to a greatest hits set.

No Consequence are an absolutely pivotal band in the little community that has grown around this family of progressive metal bands, and it really was a joy to see them play with such big grins plastered on their faces.  As soppy as it sounds, there was a lot of love in the room.  Closing the set with “Citizen”, they deliver probably my favourite five minutes of the entire weekend.  I’ve missed No Consequence so it was great to have them back, however briefly.

With so many long-standing favourites of mine appearing across the weekend, opportunities for discovering new bands are relatively slim.  By far the most pleasant surprise of the few bands I watched for the first time at Radar were mathcore New Yorkers Cryptodira.  Having filled the two weeks since 2000 Trees on tour around Europe with Rolo Tomassi, they turn up in the early afternoon and, with a minimum of fuss, tear our faces off.  Mixing up a bit of doom, a sprinkling of jazz and a goodly helping of Dillinger Escape Plan, they deliver a punchy, dynamic and thoroughly engrossing half hour that keeps the room full to capacity throughout.  Of the four bands who played in the opening slots, it was Gatvol kicking off the main stage on the Saturday who showed the most promise with a spirited if slightly scrappy performance, but enough indicators to suggest they’re worth keeping an eye on as they develop.

Naturally, there will always be acts you don’t fully connect with across any festival bill, but the most baffling proposition comes from ‘djent covers’ outfit Flux. Featuring ex-Hacktivist guitarist Timfy and current Heart of a Coward bassist Vishal, they have taken a wildly varied collection of familiar tunes, from artists as varied as Radiohead, The Prodigy and Sam Smith and through their dogged instance on channelling them through a preposterously narrow filter of tone and technique, make them all sound exactly the same. Even more perplexing still is the choice to run all of the lead vocals through backing tracks, effectively turning the band into a bizarrely inverted karaoke. With all the songs pitched at a tempo that makes them suitable for neither dancing nor moshing, it’s virtually impossible to see what the actual point of it all is. But, certainly, managing to make a Prodigy song undanceable is a rare feat.

More positively, there is a fresh wave of promising talent coming up through the ranks right now, and this weekend saw four particular examples of bands really pushing themselves forwards.  Right at the front of this pack sit Loathe, who completely detonated into a relatively early Friday afternoon slot with a devastatingly heavy new song.  Loathe are a little bit divisive, but I sit firmly in the ‘pro’ camp.  Although they have dialled back the theatrics a bit that made their early shows so head-turning, they have been replaced with a tremendously self-assured and ferociously energetic performance.  They even have the sheer brass neck to stick an ambient interlude slap bang in the middle of the set, and sit down on the stage as the tape rolls before launching back into another hulking riff.  It’s a bold move, but I think everyone appreciates a little breather now and then.  The key to their success, I think, is taking big dumb beatdown riffs, but then giving considerably more thought to the overall composition and presentation than purveyors of big dumb beatdown riffs can ever be bothered with.  Their upcoming second album, on the strength of the new songs making their way into the set, is riding really very close to the top of my most anticipated list. 

The other three bands in this little group are each at slightly different stages in their careers, but all of them have covered a noticeable amount of ground since I last saw them. Arcaeon have been largely sequestered away this year, working on material for their upcoming album. They showcase a brace of new tracks to a main room almost completely full of punters despite their early Saturday stage time, and the new songs are comfortably their strongest yet.  Harbinger were equally successful at drawing people into the venue at an early hour on the Friday – as well as inciting the first circle pit of the weekend – and their recent marathon tour around Europe with Rings of Saturn has honed their live performance, now exclusively drawn from their debut full-length Compelled to Suffer, into a particularly sharp point. Melodic progsters Valis Ablaze have recently released their second album, Render, and their late Saturday afternoon set proves that the new material comfortably transitions to the stage and that the band’s sound has matured into one that is more distinctively their own than a collection of their influences. Extra praise is also due to Valis guitarist Ash Cook, who fitted the set into his duties as part of the core organisation team for the festival, and no doubt had a head full of outstanding backstage tasks and issues as he played. 

For some of the more established acts on the bill slightly fell victim to a combination of my own over-familiarity with them, and the rather stuffy air in the main room. Heart of a Coward and Rolo Tomassi definitely were part of that group.  Even with Monuments clearly revived and rejuvenated by Andy Cizek, currently the temporary replacement for their recently departed  frontman Chris Baretto, I don’t really feel myself being as drawn in by the set as I have in the past. But Monuments are a band who wear their hearts on their sleeves, and it seems obvious that the band is feeling happier in themselves than they have in some time. Andy is nothing short of phenomenal, especially when you consider that he can still count the number of shows he has played at this level on his fingers. Whilst there is still a hint of rabbit-in-the-headlights about his stage presence, his voice is strong and assured. He’s bold enough, too, to make the songs his own rather than trying to exactly mimic Chris. Andy had some big shoes to fill, and he has done so with remarkable success. With good reason from past experience, Monuments are not yet being definitive about whether Andy will become a permanent member, but it currently looks like a strong possibility.

The two bands where my enthusiasm has not been dulled despite repeated exposure were Sumer and Toska. Sumer are the band I have seen most often in recent years, with the count now somewhere in the mid-twenties, and the band are (finally) introducing steadily more and more new material into the set. With their debut album rapidly approaching its fifth birthday, it’s successor really can not come soon enough for me. Leaving Heart of a Coward’s set early also allowed me to secure a prime viewing spot for Toska, something I’ve been unable to manage the last couple of times I’ve seen them play. The onstage chemistry of the trio, not to mention the intense concentration of sheer talent between them, makes them fundamentally the most exciting instrumental act currently on the circuit.

So, in conclusion we can confidently assert that in their debut year, Radar Festival comfortably breezed past the high expectations set by the unrelenting quality of their inaugural line-up. A largely untested venue didn’t present any unforeseen logistical challenges, the stages ran broadly to time and the bands all played their hearts out. The decision to keep the festival to two full days meant the organisers were able to deliver a lean and mean event, with minimal filler and a full free Sunday for people to get back to their homes and prepare to rejoin the real world on the Monday.  With the first announcement about next year’s festival due to drop very imminently indeed (and, I have reason to believe, blow some minds in the process) Radar have already established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the British festival season. 

See you next year?

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