The Load In
August may have been a relatively quiet month in terms of the volume of events I attended, but there can be no doubt that the quality has been exceptionally high. Having already spoken at length about Radar festival in my last column, I only have three more events to speak about here – but I expect I’m still going to have plenty to say. The overwhelming majority of this month’s Disco Loadout will inevitably be devoted to the seventh ArcTanGent festival, and it doesn’t spoil anything to say it was a fucking magical weekend, even with more than twelve hours of continuous heavy rain landing on the site on Friday, turning the ground into a sticky, muddy swamp, even inside the (mercifully) covered stages. As they say, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing and – though bitter experience – I arrived on site reasonably well prepared.
We’ll get deep into the mud and magic of ATG soon enough, but before we get there we have another ‘only in London’ moment to deal with. The first show I was expecting to talk about was Italian noise mentalists Zu, stopping off in London to play a special show commemorating the tenth anniversary of their Ipecac-released Carboniferous album – but I ended up going elsewhere at the last minute, for remarkably fortuitous reasons.
Battles @ The Shacklewell Arms
I never win anything. Granted, I very rarely even try to win things, but that is beside the point. Nevertheless, when I spotted the announcement that it was possible to win tickets to a special, short-notice show by Battles, in the tiny backroom of a London pub simply by pre-ordering their upcoming album, I figured it was worth a punt. I’d be buying a copy of the album anyway, so why not? I placed my order left it to the gods to decide if I would go. The gods – whoever they are – smiled on me, and a couple of days later, an email plopped into my inbox to let me know there were two tickets in my name waiting to be claimed. Hallelujah.
Let’s just make something crystal clear at this point: John Stanier, who now represents half of Battles in their new-look duo configuration, is literally my favourite drummer of all time. After first hearing him play with Helmet (Betty was a tremendously important album in shaping my music tastes back in the early nineties) and through his subsequent work with Tomahawk and Battles, his crisp and snappy beats have been a constant presence in my listening rotations for a quarter century. And now I was going to be able to watch him play in a shoebox. Excited doesn’t even begin to cover it.
This is my first trip to The Shacklewell Arms, one of the astounding number of live music venues in and around the Dalston/Shoreditch area. There have been many anguished articles about the closure of venues in the very centre of London, but few even touch upon how live music is thriving just a few tube stops away. But maybe we can talk about that some other time. The Shacklewell is a traditional Victorian boozer, of which there are hundreds sprinkled across London like punctuation, with a small live room tacked on the back alongside the standard square of concrete and benches that pubs manage to get away with calling a ‘garden’. It’s the type of place that you’re more likely to find Oasis copycat bands playing to Amy Winehouse lookalikes than godfathers of math-rock, or whatever you call the noises Battles make.
The arrangements for tonight are obviously non-standard. By overhearing the security briefing, I learn that there are seventy lucky ticket winners (or 35 groups of two). We are given strict instructions to be at the venue no later than 8pm. We line up outside one door with those invited to be on the guestlist (standing immediately behind us in the queue is Igor Cavalera) and once we are inside, forty further punters who had queued up were allowed in. But as we were pretty much at the front of the queue, as we enter the venue nobody is stood at the front. John’s kit is set up facing sideways, so I position myself directly underneath his trademark single cymbal, set on a stand on maximum extension.
The show starts with an hour long DJ set from John, which comprises some fairly unremarkable thumpy EDM (although I’m probably not the best person to comment on it) before the new-look duo take the stage. Having lost a whole member has forced a quite dramatic re-think of what they can bring to the stage, and Ian’s onstage set up is a completely different shape to the last time I saw them as a trio. The set, therefore, is almost entirely comprised of new material, with just two or three previously released tracks, including “The Yabba” and “Atlas”.
It is utterly spellbinding. I really can not explain just how extraordinary it is to stand so close to a musician that I have admired for so long. By the end of the set, my cheeks were aching from smiling so much, and my shirt was lightly dusted with shavings of stick. From my viewing position, I can see every single stick strike, and both his feet. I am in heaven. We’re also close enough to watch Ian manipulate his array of effects, triggers and samplers, and I am still none the wiser about how he converts the seemingly random hits on his guitar into the melody lines of the songs. I can’t completely rule out the possibility that he is a wizard.
The set passes in a flash, I only take my phone out of my pocket to grab a few pictures and a couple of minutes of video. I don’t even think about checking the time. I really could not be happier that I took the punt on winning a ticket, and that it came through. I left the venue feeling like the luckiest bastard on earth, and ready to dive in to ArcTanGent at the weekend.
ArcTanGent Festival – And So I Watch You From A Farm
Truth be told, it still feels just a little bit strange to be talking about ArcTanGent 2019 in the past tense. Since the first major line-up announcement dropped in late January, excited anticipation for the weekend has been a pretty much constant topic of conversation, especially in smoking areas between bands at ATG friendly shows. Now, those little chats have made the jump to ‘did you go?’ from ‘are you going?’. With a backdrop of six months of constant hype, and an especially portentous weather forecast for the site over the weekend, ATG could have struggled to meet the sky-high expectations, but the weekend certainly delivered a memorable experience, with the quality of the sounds pouring out of the four stages more than compensating for the, shall we say, sub-optimal conditions onsite from Friday onwards.
ATG has a bit of a reputation for attracting exactly the type of weather everyone probably expects from a British summer weekend. At both of the previous iterations of the festival I had attended – the inaugural festival in 2013 and 2017 – the site was visited by significant rainstorms. In 2017, I abandoned my attempt to watch Converge as the rain was hitting us virtually horizontally, so I retreated to ensure my tent didn’t blow away. Through this experience, and with an unspeakably horrific-looking storm almost certain to try and ruin our weekend on the Friday, I arrived on-site this year prepped and braced for another wet ATG.
Under normal circumstances, I will go out of my way to avoid pitching a tent, preferring to find sanctuary in nearby hotels for weekend festivals. ATG is different, though. The festival is held on a working dairy farm in the rolling hills surrounding Bristol. It is (in British terms) relatively remote with almost non-existent mobile data coverage, unreliable phone signal and minimal urban amenities like 24 hour taxi services or boring-but-dependable hotel chains. For a non-driver like myself, the challenge of reliably getting to and from off-site accommodation outweighs the challenge of festival camping. And ATG 2019 was certainly a challenging camp.
The weather forecast for Friday was sadly all too accurate, with a storm squatting over the site and dropping relentless heavy rain from a point before I warily unzipped my tent around 9am until Frontierer were playing their third-stage headline set around twelve hours later. Even with it’s soggy reputation, the most hardened ATG veterans confidently asserted that the storm was comfortably (ho ho) the worst in the festival’s seven year history. The site was awash with tales of damp woe, tent and clothing failures and punters simply giving up and going home. An unfortunate trio camped right next me managed to spill a full pint of beer all over their bedding just as they were retiring on Thursday night, and after waking to the deluge had packed up and disappeared by early Friday afternoon. The camping supply shop did a particularly brisk trade in Wellington boots, and Employed To Serve’s trademark windbreakers flew out of the merch tent.
But all was not completely lost. A couple in my camping party turned up with a preposterously over-sized bell tent, but it’s capacity meant there was space for all five of us to sit comfortably in chairs, sheltered from the elements. That respite was almost as much of a godsend as some judicious packing allowing me to change my socks and trousers in the late afternoon. Do not underestimate the healing power of warm dry feet. In addition, the biggest physical changes to the site since my last visit two years ago involved moving the stages slightly closer together, and – mercifully – putting the main stage into a circus tent large enough to accommodate almost everyone. With the added bonus of the natural warmth generated by so many bodies squeezed in together offsetting the fact the ground underfoot was a squelchy, sticky quagmire right up to the barriers, really the best way to deal with the unpleasant conditions was to go and watch some bands. Which, of course, is really why we were there in first place. Neat.
However, with both the arduous conditions and a most uncommon concentration of must-see bands clustered at the top of the running order each day, the biggest casualty of the weekend was the death of my desire to check out many unfamiliar bands on the bill. Any last, lingering clashes were resolved by taking the safest, most dependable option and seeking respite from the deluge destroyed my plans to wander around in search of serendipitous discoveries. This was particularly on Friday afternoon, but also on Saturday when I joined the multitudes pinned out in the afternoon sun, recharging our batteries like a colony of rather nerdy lizards. This was a pity, as my previous adventures through unfamiliar segments of the bill in the past have yielded excellent results, but the need to preserve energy and maintain sanity prevailed, meaning that I made it through the weekend relatively unscathed, having lost my footing and stacked it into the mud only once.
As you can probably tell, there’s really nothing that the British collectively enjoy more than bitching about the weather, and having a legitimate reason to do so helped to further bolster the community spirit amongst those braving the worst of it. ATG is very much a music lovers festival, and casual conversations across the site repeatedly showed that everyone was almost psychotically happy to be there, but often for markedly different reasons. There’s no denying that this year’s bill was by far the heaviest that the festival has brought together, but there was still plenty to keep busy those who didn’t want to be beaten about the head and neck by brutal riffing. We’ll talk about that more in our group coverage of the weekend.
In total, I watched twenty one bands to the extent that I could talk about them, but in the interests of avoiding a terrifyingly gigantic wall of text, I’ll just pick out a few select highlights to talk about in more detail. These picks will definitely exclude Daughters and Curse These Metal Hands, despite both of them being undeniable highlights. Daughters are coming back to London to play on Halloween, so I will save my enthusiastic barking about them for that. And for Curse These Metal Hands, I’ll talk about their London show next month. Battles also played what appeared to be an identical set to the one I saw the Tuesday before, so just read that and imagine I’m stood in the middle of an enormous tent with 5,000 other wet folks, rather than grinning myself to death at extreme proximity.
The first really notable set I caught after setting up camp was Nordic Giants. As I said in our preview article a couple of weeks ago, the band and the festival will be forever linked together in my mind due to my transcendental first exposure to them at the very first ATG. They have played the festival more years than not over the course of its existence, and this year’s main stage billing is their most prominent yet. With no sign of any new material since 2016’s Amplify Human Vibration, Nordic deliver a greatest hits set that is obviously gorgeous, but that is now what we expect. It would be fair to say that Nordic’s show is at its most effective in altogether more intimate – and darker – environs, but providing one locks ones gaze on the poignant and sumptuous films playing on the huge video screen behind the duo (or simply closes those eyes completely) it doesn’t take much more effort to be drawn into their distinctive and atmospheric world. No matter how many times I see it, “Through A Lens Darkly”/The Last Breath still retains the emotional power of that first experience.
Nordic’s set concluded with one of numerous tributes across the weekend to the late Dan Wild-Beesley, a cornerstone of the ArcTanGent community of bands cruelly taken by cancer last year. With the pair joined onstage by a guitarist and vocalist, they perform a dramatically reworked and quintessentially Nordic rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, set to a specially made film. There are few groups that could take what is arguably one of the most recognisable songs ever written and make it wholly their own, expertly balancing the sadness of Dan’s passing with the celebration of his life. It is clear that, true to form, they invested considerable thought and effort in producing a piece for what is likely to be it’s only performance, demonstrating the care and love of the community, and Dan’s importance to it. Only the coldest, hardest hearts would fail to be affected by that.
It says a great deal about both the high quality of the bill and the terrible state of my short term memory that I virtually forgot just how much I enjoyed Raketkanon‘s set until I was flicking through the photos I grabbed in lieu of taking notes. Having unfortunately missed the Belgian quartet on their last visit to the UK, this is the first time I’ve seen them since the release of their third album, and I am reminded how much heavier they sound on stage to on record. It is as though the guitars and synths swap places in the mix, together with the added heft of a full PA compensating for the absence of a bass guitar. The first four songs of Raketkanon’s set are also strong contenders for my four favourite Raketkanon songs, so that was jolly convenient.
Their genuinely distinctive art-rock balances playfulness with a slightly unsettling and dangerous glint in the eye, making it feel like the soundtrack to a particularly demented fairground ride, operated by someone with a distinctly lassez faire attitude to health and safety. What’s more, they manage to write twisted anthems with vocal noises but no actual lyrics, making singing along something of a ‘choose your own adventure’ affair. Throw in a couple of extended crowd surf’s from vocalist xxxx, and a few forays away from the drumstool for xxxx, and one is left with the impression that almost anything could happen, putting me exactly in the right mood to go and see Daughters.
With Daughters saved for the future, and neither of the Thursday night headliners really speaking to me, we fast forward to that wet, cold and miserable Friday morning. Having wrapped myself up and squelched my way into the arena in search of a strong coffee (fortunately there are at least two stands selling barista grade espresso, so the horrific vats of burnt and stale filtered mud can be avoided), I join a significant crowd to watch AA Williams open the main stage. As festival breakfasts go, especially against a wet, grey backdrop, there can’t have been many more appropriate choices. Her downbeat, downcast songs gently ease us into a day that will prove to be a real test of endurance.
With only one four-track EP of material in the public domain, and those songs all following a rather similar template, AA Williams is currently faced with broadly the same issues that Sleep Token had to deal with when they first started performing – but with a couple of new/unreleased songs joining the EP tracks to fill out the set, I simply close my eyes and gently sway as the waves of her fragile post-rock swell, crest and break over us. As it stands, AA Williams is just a bit of a one-trick pony, but it’s also fairly clear that it won’t be that way for long, and she will soon be making the jump from opening slot curiosity to a genuine attraction in her own right.
After squeezing into to the very last row of the second stage tent to watch We Never Learned To Live, the weather gremlins really took hold. We sought refuge in the camp, and even when we did head back out to watch bands, the constant downpour outside the tents holding the stages made it difficult to properly concentrate. This problem was further compounded for The Ocean, who arrived on-site virtually at the point they were supposed to start their set, and even after setting up their stage in record time, still started at least fifteen minutes late. It was also whilst we were waiting for The Ocean to get ready that Our Glorious Overlord, Eden, squelched up to me through the rapidly deepening muddy quagmire shouted ‘To HELL with your country!’ and squelched off again. I couldn’t really disagree.
It was probably a combination of the delays and the weather, but I really could not connect with The Ocean’s set at all. Granted, I probably haven’t spent as long with their latest album as I really should have, but it really does not feel like the time or the place for them. Fortunately for me, though, they were the last band I watched on this wettest of festival days who made me feel like that.
I’ve now watched the enigmatic Sleep Token perform around half a dozen times, and on pretty much every occasion, the band standing behind Vessel has been configured slightly differently. There has fairly obviously been a change of guitarist – bringing a far more spirited collection of stage moves with him (moves that members of certain underground British scenes would find instantly recognisable despite the mask) and adding to the already considerable presence that Vessel and the bass player already brought to the stage. The keyboards have now returned to the backing track, but the band are joined by three backing singers instead. The band predominantly play tracks from their upcoming debut album Sundowner, which they have been steadily drip feeding out to their startlingly rabid fanbase track by track every couple of weeks. They reach back to their pair of debut EPs only once in their forty minute set. The newer songs move further away from the formula established on those first EPs, showing the band to have matured and grown at a quite phenomenal speed, as if racing to catch up with the hype that took everyone involved rather by surprise when they first appeared, just three years ago. One newer song appears to start with Vessel weeping into his microphone, and it’s hard to tell if this is part of the track or him being overcome in that moment, but I’d be surprised if it was something he could replicate night after night when the band strike out on their first significant tour, over in the States later this year.
I trudge my way across the site to the second pair of stages to watch Palm Reader play for the fourth time this year. I am quite the fan. Getting a considerably more vigorous reaction than they received when I last saw them at Portals a couple of months ago, their anthemic and intelligent hardcore is exactly what I’m in the mood for, and especially during the thoroughly glorious “Internal Winter” and dynamic “Inertia”, I practically scream myself inside out. They’ve also just been announced for the first London-based iteration of Brighton’s Bad Pond festival towards the end of the year, so this won’t be the last time they make an appearance in these pages. Good.
With any festival, it’s most memorable moments are those special, one-off almost spontaneous ones. Black Peaks being fronted, for one night only, by Jamie Lenman is precisely one of those moments. I need to buy whoever first thought of bringing Jamie in to play this set as a stand-in for Will (whose ill health has forced the band to cancel almost all of their summer touring plans) a big drink, because the pairing is inspired and works like a charm. Playing through a set of high points from both Black Peaks albums, Jamie neither tries to do a full-bore impression of Will, nor commandeer them entirely into his own distinctive style. It’s a particularly deft balancing act that reminds us both how accomplished Black Peaks are as songwriters and Jamie is as an entertainer. Obviously, it was never going to be a straight Black Peaks set from beginning to end, and the one-off quartet reach back into Jamie’s own back catalogue for a couple of choice tracks from his days with Reuben. I am perhaps a little surprised that they elect not to play any of his more recent solo material, but Jamie makes it clear that this is, first and foremost, a Black Peaks show. The chances are that this configuration of musicians will never appear together again – and it’s unique nature helped us to forget just how deep into the tent the rain was now penetrating.
Frontierer very nearly didn’t make it at all. Just like The Ocean earlier, they arrive with only minutes to spare after a fire at the company they were due to rent a van from destroyed the majority of their fleet overnight. That’s a new one. Commandeering the last available vehicle and charging down from Scotland, the band unleash all of that pent up stress and frustration to deliver a particularly ferocious set, even by their extreme standards. With frontman and US citizen Chad now able to cross the Atlantic slightly more regularly to join his Scottish bandmates (this is his second trip of the year, and we might not have that long to wait for the next) their steadily increasing gig count is honing them into a fearsome live act. Guitarist and mastermind Pedram is particularly fond of lying flat on his back on top of the crowd, and is carried around virtually the entire tent. Second guitarist Dan is clearly not to be outdone, and instead scales the scaffolding poles holding up the tent and the lights to a height that clearly brings some discomfort to the stage hands.
It would be fair to say that there is nothing to quite like the experience of watching Frontierer detonate in a tiny venue, with no lighting except a kick drum-triggered strobe, but being part of a large and gently steaming (in many respects) festival crowd comes a close second. What’s more, when we do emerge from the tent for the short but treacherous trudge to the main stage to watch Battles, I find that for the first time since I unzipped my tent that morning, it had actually stopped raining. Perhaps Frontierer helped to scare the clouds away. I was so excited, I went and bought a hot dog and ate it standing outside whilst waiting for Battles to start. Somebody hold me back.
Skipping forwards again, we come to the final day. As I said all the way back at the beginning of this thing, I spent a considerable chunk of the afternoon enjoying the sunshine, went and saw Curse These Metal Hands (who I will return to at a later date) and then went to wait patiently in the press area for them to show up to my only scheduled interview of the whole weekend. They didn’t show up. Bastards. But it was during this period of waiting that I spent more time with my fellow Heavy Bloggers than I had all weekend, so all was not completely lost. The only thing I really missed out on was my opportunity to see LLNN, and they will be supporting Conjurer on tour later this year.
I did also head for the arena fully intending to watch Russian Circles, but through continually being distracted into conversations with familiar faces I managed to miss all but a couple of pleasingly meaty riffs. In our preview article, Eden referred to me as a ‘celebrity’ in certain circles – and I may have to concede that he has a point. Indeed, back on Thursday lunchtime, I’d managed to say hello to half a dozen people I’d crossed paths with previously before I’d even gotten my wristband. Its a hard life.
A similar thing happened with the ‘secret act’ billed midway through the day on the main stage, which transpired to be festival favourites And So I Watch You From Afar(m) playing their debut album in full. I think it is safe to say that I have never seen a crowd react as enthusiastically to slightly awkward and wonky math-rock as they did during ASIWYFA(F)’s set at ATG 2013, but struck by a need to eat I grabbed myself some traditional fish and chips and sat on a mercifully dry patch of ground near the main stage to listen whilst I ate. But then I fell into conversation with a couple sat nearby who had come to ATG for the first time on a day ticket to see Meshuggah and rather lost track of time extolling the virtues of the festival instead. But, once again, I will be getting a second bite of that particular cherry when the band come to London to play that album again in the alarmingly tiny Camden Assembly, which used to be called the Barfly until it was given a makeover seemingly to appeal exclusively to hipster wankers and stopped booking anything even remotely heavy.
Watching all of Car Bomb‘s set was definitely a punishing affair, but at least I now properly understand why I don’t really get on with them. I am most certainly a creature of groove, and whilst I don’t have to have that groove handed to me on a silver platter, there are limits to what I can tolerate and Car Bomb fall just outside them. Ultimately, what they really did for me was demonstrate just how extraordinary Meshuggah are, but I’ll definitely have more to say about that in just a couple of paragraphs.
By the time you get to the final two sets of a weekend festival, people are usually pretty spent, even if they haven’t been walking around on semi-liquid ground that tries to prise the boots off your feet with every squelchy step. But after a weekend of challenging conditions and equally challenging music, I was in the mood for exactly one thing: Riffs. Riffs with s capital ‘Fucking’ Fortunately, Employed To Serve basically drove a dumper truck full of riffs onto the stage and emptied it relentlessly on to the crowd. Playing an absolute shitkicker of a set that was fundamentally comprised of the opening few tracks of their last two albums, Warmth of a Dying Sun and this year’s outstanding Eternal Forward Motion, Employed To Serve breathed reinvigorating life into a flagging crowd. “Beneath It All” a particular favourite of mine from Eternal Forward Motion that didn’t make it into the setlist for the album release tour gets an airing and is every bit as potent in the live context as I had expected it to be. Plus, I am an unashamed sucker for the old ‘bring the riff back, but slower’ trick.
Guitarist Sammy has clearly spent most of the weekend shouting along to the bands with the rest of us, so his voice sounds just a little cracked as he goads the pit into action, then swims out over it to climb a central support pillar to further hector the back of the tent. No one is safe.
Which brings us to Meshuggah. I duck out during Employed To Serve’s final song so that I can hook up with my buddies for the grand finale of the weekend, and as I arrive in the main stage tent, even the stage set up is exciting. Meshuggah have absolutely made the space their own, disposing of the video screen that has served as the backdrop for the rest of the weekend and wheeled out a quite fantastical array of additional lighting. Of course, it is virtually the case that Meshuggah’s lighting guy is a full member of the band, and absolutely pivotal to the full experience. Because that’s precisely what a Meshuggah show is: An experience. It is a relatively straightforward idea, executed with genuinely boggling degrees of precision. I really can’t think of another act on the planet who can physically move so little on-stage, but still be utterly transfixing. They play a set that draws teacks from numerous albums, and a surprising number from Nothing, as well as “Future Breed Machine” from Destroy Erase Improve – a song which remains thoroughly embedded in my internal jukebox for three solid days afterwards.
On my last visit to ATG, Explosions In The Sky were the final headliners, and whilst that was lovely, it felt like the festival ended with a whimper. There’s no way anyone can say that ATG 2019 ended with anything other than a most almighty bang. Meshuggah in full flight is a most extraordinary thing to witness – a virtually symbiotic coming together of men, machines and an almost pathological pursuit of precision. It didn’t even matter that each successive headbang pushed us a millimetre or two deeper into the mud we were standing on/in. There may have been a couple of minor technical hitches along the way, leading to a couple of slightly longer pauses between the songs, and Jens being rather more talkative than he normally is, but the set reaches its conclusion and the stage goes dark at almost exactly 11pm on the dot. We really should not be surprised.
So ATG 2019 will go down in history as being both an almighty slog to get through, but one that rewarded those who persevered with one of the most extraordinarily high concentrations of top quality music assembled in living memory. It will be the yardstick against which festival bills will be measured for some time to come, and I can’t imagine it being bested any time soon. I might not have watched quite as many bands as I had expected to, but almost every single set I caught was excellent, the food was almost all edible and the company engaging. But if we could have a dry one next year, that would be super.