Photo (From Left): Trent Bos, Eden Kupermintz, and Simon Clark at ArcTanGent 2019.
I’ve been to many a festival in my “career” as a metalhead. Hellfest, Brutal Assault, Download, Graspop and more have all been graced by my frowns, interrupted sleep, and abhorrent amounts of alcohol. What I’ve learned over my career is that the smaller festivals and experiences within the festivals are what make it worth your while. Even in bigger festivals, like Download, what really ends up sticking with you is the small moments: watching Anathema play a sunset set. A stupid joke shared among good friends. A much needed shower after the festival. And so on.
When things really get magical is when a festival is made up of small moments, whether by virtue of venue (walking through the small town outside of Hellfest is a weird experience which I will never forget) or the bands playing or the people you’re with, these jaunts are life-altering experiences, the good and the bad. Which is why it’s safe to say that ArcTanGent 2019 changed my life. The festival has been on my list for a while now, ever since a few friends flew there a couple of years ago. But this year, it seemed as if the stars really aligned: a bunch of people from the blog were attending. The lineup was absolutely, jaw-dropping insane. I had time to take off work. Everything was set and I was sure the experience would be worth it.
And it was, much more than just worth it. Don’t get me wrong, there were hardships; I’m not 21 anymore and the prospect of sleeping in a tent for three days wasn’t very appealing. And that was before some seriously intense rain brought on the mud. So. Much. Mud. But still, it was worth it. It was worth it to meet so many people from the blog. It was worth it to see the sheer number of mind-bending, incredible, bucket-list worthy sets. As I wrote elsewhere, when talking about Caspian, it was one of the first times in my life where I could physically, viscerally feel the high which music can give you.
The ArcTanGent logo is all about hybridity. So is the festival; the heavy mixes with the light, the powerful with the ephemeral, the loud with the quiet. This year, the festival seemed to lean into it, creating a lineup which practically screamed of alchemy and curve-ball admixtures. So that’s how we decided to approach our wrap-up of it. Below you’ll find some dualities, contrasts that sprang to my mind as I was at the festival at self. What follows is but a taste of the power of these hybrids; there are many more bands we could have written about which played amazing sets. There are many more we dualities and categories we could have found but I have a much more enjoyable proposition: come yourself next year and see these forces play out in front of your eyes. Come and experience a small-ish festival dedicated to the genres which made it be and possessed of a sense of community and pure musical joy that I haven’t quite yet experienced in my life.
Come to ArcTanGent 2020. I’ll see you there.
Sturm und Drang
Looking at the lineup, one of the easiest dualities to pick out was that of heavy vs. light, quiet vs. loud. The lineup practically screams it and it’s a classic way to set your audience’s emotions alight. At ArcTanGent this mix was expertly curated, the set-list bouncing you between emotional depths and emotional heights with ease.
Ithaca are the millennial misery, confetti-clad kings and queens of British hardcore. Listening to the band’s debut released earlier this year, the impression I got from the squawky, rusty riffs and the sodden and murky white noise that pervades the runtime is that these guys are the couriers of modern 20-something anguish. I was right. They are precisely that. However, what I didn’t expect was for this archetype to include floral shirts and dresses, a meme-y disposition and amusing Twitter exchanges.
You’re probably thinking, “yes, but how does that translate to a live experience?”, and you’d be thinking perfectly logically in asking that because I can’t give a well-articulated response. It just does. The band performed with urgency and with noticeable here-and-now-ness, as many bands of their calibre tend to do. However, Ithaca’s breakdowns and frantic stage gestures, I thought, seemed analogous to the frustrated millennial wriggling through an increasingly dire social climate; whether that be suffering burnout from the sheer pace of the modern technological age, supporting a loved one through a mental health crisis with increasingly fraught health provisions or watching headline after headline roll in on your smartphone about a feckless leader’s latest antics or whatever the next hurricane that’ll likely devastate the Caribbean will be called. You could just feel it. In the excitedly twitchy crowd (we were watching from near the back of the venue, of course there were limbs flying closer to the action), in the mammoth breakdown that closes “Impulse Crush” and in the spicy noodling that intersperses virulent chugging in “Otherworldly”.
Disillusioned and debilitated millennial sentiment can’t just be channelled with aggressive stage performances, there’s more nuance to the issues than that and Ithaca knew that. The only real breather on their debut album is the sombre and contemplative interlude “(no translation)”. The band used it with this same effect live, blowing the concrete immediacy of their metalcore strain away and making space for something bigger, something higher. This is something we all need every now and again, a break from here-and-now-ness just to be. Ithaca might not bring a Frontierer or a Car Bomb sense of heaviness to the table, but they bring this kind.
Seeing Matt Calvert perform his music, mostly from his album Typewritten, was a truly unique experience. In the mud, in the cold, in the fog, he brought out an entire ensemble, armed with violin, cello, percussion of all sorts, and acoustic guitars. My main concern was the sound; capturing the balance and tones between these instruments in a live setting, in that weather, was truly a challenge. But I was worried for no reason, as everything rang out crystal clear. It seemed, to me, to be a wave of sound which washed out the dirt, the wearniness, and the sheer volume that had passed through my ears in previous sets.
The music itself translated surprisingly well into the living setting; Typewritten is a pretty introspective and contemplative album; it’s meant for rager or for moshing. And yet, there was something incredibly alluring about its percussiveness. The guitars, on the recording and in the live setting, are powerfully strummed, adding a hint of wood to every expression.
Couple that with the host of keys and other percussive sounds in the ensemble and you get something that doesn’t exactly makes you dance but rather patters all across your body like so many drops of rain.
Add to this that this was one of the first live performances of this music and the sheer difference between the set and everything else that was planned for the festival and you got an experience that could be described as otherworldly. However, something about the humility, the size of the music being played, and just the overall mood of the set grounded it. Instead of being ethereal, out of reach or distant, Matt Calvert and his band were extremely present, the light seeping into everything around them as they played. It was one of the most refreshing and invigorating sets I’ve seen and one which could only take place successfully at ArcTanGent.
Apples and Oranges
Technicality in the UK is an interesting beast; the term is wound up irreversibly in “UK Tech”, a name which denotes a certain type of sound but also a certain community within the British metal scene. However, ArcTanGent had its fair share of technicality as well. The interesting thing is how the term can lead to such different music; onslaught, bewilderment, abrasiveness, and even mirth can arise from technical music. ArcTanGent had both types on display, effortlessly channeling its math-rock roots while bringing in heavier and more experimental sounds on board as well.
Bands that make sonically complex music often have a “base” level of technicality that they build upon from release to release, across years and years. Case in point, Meshuggah; they began with an idea (testing the boundaries of rhythm) and pushed it further and further with each album they brought out, from 1991’s Contradictions Collapse to 2016’s The Violent Sleep of Reason. The Contortionist, however, completely switched “bases” from one conception of technicality to an entirely different conception in the space of four albums. Beginning with a focus on stuttering staccato riffs amidst various atmospheric backdrops on Exoplanet, the band almost immediately uprooted themselves and replanted in an entirely different forest, creating angelic, yet intense soundscapes on Language, and then completely turning the aggressiveness knob down to two and the wispy, featherweight indie-prog knob up to eleven for 2017’s Clairvoyant. Quite a journey really.
These musical about-faces were showcased in their restrained, yet potent set at the Yokhai stage. Setlist staple “Flourish” was the poster boy for the long gone Exoplanet-era of the band’s career. It may be a style the band will likely never return to, but you’d be kidding yourself to say it is an extinct part of the band’s DNA, rather it might be more appropriate to view it as dormant, just waiting to rear its head. And rear its head it did with Mike Lessard robotically sidestepping his way from one end of the stage to the other like an arthritic ballet dancer in time with the maniacal guitar chugging. It was a particular delight to see some of the more reserved members of the band (*coughs* Cameron Maynard *coughs*) actually adopt some power stances and seem genuinely elevated by the thrust of the second half of “Flourish”.
The remainder of the—I have to admit, frustratingly short set—was dominated by the more delicate style that I detailed in the initial paragraph. Language’s title track received a gleeful reception from the crowd with its meditative introductory passage feeling almost transcendental in quality. Keeping true to its title, Clairvoyant stunner “Return to Earth” movingly closed the set with its propulsive outro and Lessard’s urgent vocal performance stealing my mind away for one final moment. Relaying the setlist arc in my head sitting here now, I think it served to perfectly exemplify the multi-phase trajectory the band has had throughout their career, showing them as technical shapeshifters.
Thank You Scientist
I’ve waited about four years for Thank You Scientist to come around my neck of the woods and unleash their brand of uplifting, wildly meandering and loopy jazz fusion upon my awaiting giddy face. Giddy was how I imagined I would be feeling when I finally saw them live, but naturally, the skies above Bristol decided to empty the contents of Neptune’s wallet onto us. Constantly. For 8 hours.
I had heard things here and there building up to this moment, that the band’s clean and highly precise studio sound left something to be desired when replicated in a live environment. This was a shame to hear but not much of a surprise as letting all seven members’ instruments be heard amongst the collective sound is no easy task. Despite this, the jumble sale of sounds occupying a mere ten seconds at the beginning of Terraformer cut “Swarm” was pulled off with a deft hand with each breakneck shift in the song sounding defined, not ill-timed or rough. However, they didn’t entirely escape audio woes with final track “Terraformer” losing its edge in particular, mainly due to Tom Monda’s guitar having little in the way of ‘punch’ to make that intro riff extra spicy.
To leave ultimately minor sound issues behind for a moment, let’s see Thank You Scientist’s technicality for what it was amongst the sea of technical acts on show at ArcTanGent. The band’s pedestal may not rise much higher than any of the other bands in terms of sheer virtuosity, but they certainly occupy a unique place among them by wrapping such sugary pop hooks so tightly with such intense, ear-tickling guitar and brass passages, all the while keeping a semblance of sturdy song structure. Go and see Thank You Scientist and take your mum with you, she’s sure to want to dance.
Dark and Stormy
Atmosphere was one of the most present forces in ArcTanGent this year. Many of the sets focused on an all-encompassing, overwhelming, and frankly majestic moods for some sets. But how to craft this kind of atmosphere is a question open to many kinds of answers; every band, even when operating within the same genre, has a different take on what creates that kind of mesmerizing energy.
Daughters, Battles, and Meshuggah
The Power of the Pulse
If there is a word which is potentially over-used in the context of sub-genres prefixed with ‘math-‘ or ‘tech-‘ it is ‘chaotic’. Yes, there’s often an awful lot going on, and it can be difficult to wrap one’s head around on early listens, but what is actually happening is anything but chaos. Unless you are listening to free jazz or other improvisational music, there is always method in the madness. Although I am sure we are all as guilty as each other in reaching for an easy descriptive tag, it could quite easily be seen as disrespectful to the creators of this music to refer to their meticulously crafted and dilligently performed art as a form of chaos. Chaos is never consistent, and the trio of bands that I have picked out here from the performances over the weekend can be counted on to deliver night after night.
For most people, a first listen to Daughters, Battles or Meshuggah is a near-baffling cacophony of noise-rock, electro-math or heavy fucking metal. But the Road to Damascus moment with all of them is realising that their maelstroms swirl around a kind of sonic anchor. Lashing oneself to this anchor and letting the rest of the instrumentation wash over you is that key. For Daughters, it lives in the bassline. For Battles and Meshuggah, it lives in the drums – although for the former, it is the kick drum and the latter the hi-hat.
So for all three sets, I was to be found with my eyes locked on the stage, a big daft grin on my face and a constant head-nod in effect. The effect was the same, despite the wild variation between the three acts. This is pretty much exactly what I love about ArcTanGent – that attitude and approach, that passion, sincerity and dexterity, are so much more important than ticking the right genre boxes.
You won’t get what you want. But you will get what you need.
Listening to Daughters, and especially watching them play is a lot like getting a tattoo. It is often uncomfortable, at times outright painful, but also extraordinarily compelling and, for some, goddamn addictive. For me personally, Daughters were something of a unicorn. Having discovered them with Hell Songs and adoring it’s eponymous successor, their lengthy hiatus had robbed me of the opportunity to see them perform for the better part of a decade.
Their first London date earlier this year, since reactivating and releasing the quite radically different You Won’t Get What You Want in late 2018, was nothing short of a revelation, unlocking the mysteries of the album that had hitherto remained elusive to me. It’s fair to say that since that point, I had become somewhat obsessed with the album, making their second stage headliner set my most excitedly anticipated performance of the first day. I am clearly not alone, as the crowd packs out the tent well in advance of their stage time.
With a minimum of fuss, they file onto the stage and launch into “The Reason They Hate Me”, one of the more immediately accessible songs on You Won’t Get What You Want, which is obviously buried deep in its tracklist and then pile headlong into the white-knuckle ride of “The Lord’s Song”. They are transfixing. Frontman Alexis is a thoroughly captivating presence, his David Yow-esque drawl managing to sound both disaffected and psychotically focused at the same time. He whirls around the stage, and roams out on to the audience repeatedly.
For me, the set highlight comes relatively early, in the form of the twisted masterpiece of “Satan In The Wait”. It is a most unlikely anthem, with no discernible verse or chorus structure and the twin mantras of “This world is opening up” and “Today is going to feel like tomorrow someday. Tomorrow’s gonna feel like yesterday” spinning around each other over a hypnotic drone. I’m sure none of us know what Alexis really means by these lyrics, but we are left in no doubt that he means them.
After a morning of travelling and setting up camp, and an afternoon stuffed with top-quality sets from Bossk, Nordic Giants and Raketkanon (among others) it would be fair to say that I couldn’t quite make it through the whole set without stepping away for long enough to smoke a cigarette to take a short break the their jagged shards of noise. But as the burning cherry edged closer to the filter, I found myself edging closer and closer to the tent again. I think that’s as close to a definition of ‘compelling’ as you are likely to find.
Scattered Sprites and Fluorescent Nights
There was only ever really one band that could contend with headliner’s Meshuggah for the ‘heaviest band of the festival’ title, and that was the disorientating explosion that was Car Bomb. I became a fan somewhere between ‘w^w^^w^w’ and the release of their previous acclaimed album Meta but this would be my first time subjected to their live experience. The heaviness is very quickly apparent, but they have a knack for incorporating little melodies and a bold use of contrast that can lure you into a false sense of security. The crowd was very much into it, but their rhythmic complexity complicates the whole headbanging thing. There are so many moving parts that it’s sometimes hard to follow one thing, but you can always just be awed by the sheer talent of each individual member.
While they don’t necessarily have typical ‘electronic’ elements in their music, their sound is certainly technology or machine-driven. “If we were around in the 60s or 70s there’s no way we’d be able to do this. It’s amazing that we live in a time that allows us to do the type of music that we want to do. … We never thought we’d be shooting lasers out of our guitars,” said bassist Jon Modell in a conversation I had with him. In a way they’re reconstructing the notion of how rhythm can be played in metal, their disintegrating or “meltdown” riffs as Jon referred to them as have a rhythm gradually collapsing in on itself. It translates into a surreal live experience. As mentioned elsewhere in this article, like Meshuggah and Daughters they have a similar pulse you can get locked into, but Car Bomb’s is someone with heart dysrhythmia which bounces around unpredictably as soon as you feel comfortable in it. To some this might make a challenging live experience, but with tightness that they perform it in you can’t help but appreciate it.
During the peak of the rain on Saturday, Frontierer took the stage and showed why along with Car Bomb they’re becoming one of the faces of modern mathcore. While not necessarily as punishingly heavy as them, they turn their technicality into a sonic barrage of the senses. In contrast, their tempos are generally consistently faster and there’s rarely a break or that false sense of security before the car explodes; here you’re just unbuckled and thrashing about as your car flips continuously through the air. Like Car Bomb they certainly couldn’t produce their sound without the use of powerful modern electronics, but as in some of their newer material they’ve begin to incorporate actual electronic music stables such as breakbeats and drum n’ bass into the music itself. I’m hoping to hear more of this in their future material, if for nothing that it translates into an even more eclectic and unpredictable live experience.
You can’t talk about Frontierer’s live show without talking about Chad Kapper. The powerful frontman of the band owns the stage, with crisp delivery yet insane passionate energy. His vocal delivery is as unrelenting as the instrumentation and the fact that he doesn’t miss a beat live was astounding. The stage presence of the whole band can’t be understated though. Both guitarists decided they actually had enough of the stage at one point, with Pedram taking to crowdsurfing while playing guitar, and the other dangerously climbing some of the speaker mounts. The pure chaos of their live antics matched the whirlwind of the music itself perfectly and was definitely a memorable moment of the festival for me.
Heaven and Hell
Zeal & Ardor
The riverbed will run red with the blood of the saints and the blood of the holy. That’s it, that’s the review. Zeal & Ardor. See them live.
If you’re into metal and have been living under a rock for some reason, with two albums under their belt now Zeal & Ardor are quickly becoming a force in not only the black metal scene but across the spectrum of heavy music – driven strongly by their immense live shows. The former internet experiment (mixing black metal with African American spiritual slave chants) has turned into a touring force, performing an eclectic range of festivals from post/prog dominant ones like ATG to even those more in the mainstream.
No offense to the backing vocalists and musicians, but the draw is undeniably in the main songwriter and vocalist/guitarist Manuel Gagneaux. His infectiously catchy and powerful voice and lyrics possesses the entire audience in a ritual to the devil himself. Huge lines like “Row! Row! Row! You fools!” take you on a journey to the river of styx, because the “good god is the one that brings that fire.” You can’t help but shout along to these repetitive chant-like lyrics to the point of losing your voice with a smile on your face.
The black metal instrumentation really provides such a perfect backdrop for these spiritual rituals that I’m surprised it hasn’t been done before. The walls of tremolo picking distortion and shrieked screams tear through the crowd, instilling a fear and uneasiness along with that you can’t run from, but the contrast with ear-worm level vocal hooks and occasional funkiness make it so much more than your typical extreme metal performance. I pretty much had at least one line or melody from them stuck in my head for the whole weekend. The possession is lingering. Lord don’t have mercy for you.
From the depths of hell, a different sort of spiritual experience arose into the heights above when AA Williams took the stage. I’m not alluding to them being Christian or religiously lyrical in any sense, but the aura that encapsulates their sound and performance is simply heavenly. Like Z&A, their sound is carried largely by an equally infectious and powerful vocalist. AA Williams, whom the band is named after, has an amazing gospel-like voice comparable to Chelsea Wolfe and Emma Ruth Rundle of modern artists that spreads into your soul. They conjure up a massive array of emotions in a single song. And similarly to Manuel, her hauntingly passionate vocal lines can stick in your head for days.
They were the first band to play on the wet-wet day two, and it was like their performance reverberated across the heavens, disturbing the clouds into unleashing their fury onto us for the next 12 hours straight. The melancholy of her dulcet tones matched the sombre, dreary weather conditions eerily perfectly. They were made to be playing in that weather, and for that 30-minute set I was content with the sun never shining again. The downtempo post-rocky reverb and lush textures were well dialed in, and for a day that would see thunderous heaviness from the likes of Russian Circles and The Ocean, the minimal percussion and floating-in-the-clouds atmosphere was a pleasant contrast. I’m really happy the Festival decided to include contrasting refreshing artists such as AA this year, as well as a lot of amazing female vocalists in general. Keep that up!