Jody Dunstan and Bob Cook travelled to the picturesque Somerset countryside for fifth ArcTanGent festival. ArcTangent is well known in the left-field music community for being the place where you go for “weird” music. There’s not a lot of vocals, lots of odd instruments, time signatures, etc; words like math and post abound, and when criticism is levelled at it in online forums, it’s that it’s monolithically nerdy white dudes with beards dancing badly (it’s hard enough to dance to 7/8 music without being a white guy on top of it.)
In actuality there was a diverse crowd having a great time. A very friendly, chilled vibe with an impressive range of obscure band t-shirts and a pleasing lack of ‘this year’s festival fashions’. ATG is a small festival, which makes it perfect for catching multiple bands, the stage only being a few minutes from each other. Food and drinks were also of a high quality and didn’t require a weeks wages to acquire. The festival ran from the Thursday lunchtime until Saturday night. Considering the distance some people travelled, the extra day to travel back before work was much appreciated.
One of the bands kicking things off early afternoon on Thursday was Bearded Youth Quest, They obviously loved being there and seemed to be to be solid competent math with 3 guitars that went down well. A band currently generating some excitement and buzz were Bristol’s Chiyoda Ku. Chiyoda Ku are scarily, scarily good; all sharp off kilter angular choppy riffs that get stuck in your head like a tick in the neck, and they annoyingly have songs where they keep fucking with emphasising the 1/3 beat and and 2/4 beat every bar or two to make you nod your head on the wrong beat and feel like an idiot – every few seconds. Nobody else sounds like them at the moment and they have their own space that no-one else occupies. Much like seeing Poly-math for the first time in 2013 as the first band of the festival, Chiyoda Ku were an immediate highlight.
Next up were Town Portal, who were heavy, dancy and clever math-rock, although I thought the sound, more than most bands, definitely let them down a bit; for whatever reason their guitar was a bit muddy and indistinct – they were at ATG some time back and some vids of it went “viral” (as much as that can happen in math music) of people dancing in a circle pit to one of their songs. This set unfortunately didn’t match that, for me, and that was mostly due to the mix. It was still a good set, though, and the last song was triumphantly brilliant.
Fall of Messiah followed and were super intense as always. Not many bands can justify 3 guitars, because usually you’ve got two of them playing the same thing and it doesn’t really add a lot to the sound, but these guys use the full spectrum of all three instruments and create an absolutely monstrous wall of sound with it. Fall of Messiah are best described as post-rock mixed with old school skramz (remember that stupid word?), screams ripping from throats occasionally to emphasise passages of the songs. Their song ‘Rust’ went down very well with the crowd and was a highlight, and a lot of people left with shellshocked looks on their faces. Sadly, they’re not planning to tour much for the next while, but you should definitely catch them when you can.
Wrexham based Gallops played to a full and overflowing Yokhai stage. Their sound reminiscent of Fuck Buttons and later day 65daysofstatic synth guitar stuff. They had big, spectrum filling songs which went down well with a capacity crowd. Much dancier than all the previous fare; it’s nice that the festival mixes in a lot of electronica based stuff, although there does seem to be less of it than in previous years. The three-piece band were full of energy, a bit heavier that they are recorded and ending with the stunning ‘Darkjewel’. The set was evidently enjoyed by the crowd, it was good to see festival goers filling tents on a Thursday afternoon for an albeit excellent but quite reclusive band.
There is a bit of buzz and chat about the fact that Heck were going to play their last gig at the festival. Most people were, understandably, gutted but also thankful to see their last show. They did not disappoint, they tore into the set, opening with ‘At the Ochre’. Their recorded material is fairly hectic, but this was off the charts. ‘A Great Idea Bastardised’ had the feeling of barely controlled chaos. Matt (guitars/vocals) and Johnny (guitars/vocals) prowling around the stage grabbing the nearest mic when vocals are required. Both at times throwing themselves (guitars and mic included) into the crowd. Taking a step back from the ensuing chaos I realised that what they are playing is not simple and the fact that live they sound anything like they are recorded is remarkable. Drummer Tom and bassist Paul provide structure to the whole thing, both musicians evidently improvising at times. By the time they got to ‘The Great Hardcore Swindle’ the tent was literally jumping, the crowd full of energy (and probably a few ciders) on a Thursday teatime. The audience opened up (on the request of Matt) only to turn into a pile of moshing bodies on the crescendo of the track. The crowd was also filling in parts of songs when, I assume, either equipment or singers had been caught up in the wrong place.
Heck ended with ‘Dave Lankester’, both singers screaming and the whole band at full bore, before degenerating into noise and feedback. The drummer claiming over his kit with a floor tom in hand, before probably realising that drums are expensive and that he might need them again. The stage was a mess with some relieved stage crew realising that most of the place was intact. The show ended, as I assume most of them do, with people in a daze, bruised and having lost a few things. I was thinking – we’ve got a two more full days of this! Speaking to Johnny later, I asked why they decided to give up. He said, somewhat diplomatically that they all had things they wanted to do and that they were all friends. The general gist was that the band had run its course naturally and it’s probably better to go out with a bang. With live shows like they performed that’s no surprise, it wouldn’t be the same without the chaos. There was also a few jokes about wedding bands and how to make money!
Future Of The Left were as gloriously weird as ever; thundering bass and yelping vocals rattling through all the best known songs. A band that might have mellowed and be less angry now they matured, but not so. Just as I was expecting the set to be over, they threw ‘Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues’ out of nowhere – one of my favourite songs as a young ‘un, covered by my shite university band, and which I never got to see live with McClusky. That was very nice indeed.
On a somewhat calmer note, Nordic Giants were the penultimate band of the Thursday. The tent they were playing in was full to capacity and people were surrounding the area. The band, just two members, dressed in black, Native American style masks/headdress, took to the dark stage obscured by smoke. The focus, I assume, intended to be on the visuals projected above the stage. Such was the amount of people it was hard to get close, which was a shame because the ambience deserved to be immersed in. The mix of visuals and music was seamless and expertly done. It was a mix of stop motion, vintage movies and dance. The tracks themselves mattered little as the experience, both music and visuals meshed to create the overall effect. The music, however, firmly post-rock, would probably seem very flat and uninteresting without the accompanying visuals.
Russian Circles were the headliners of the evening. For the gear nerds among us, you could hear the cranked Fender Twins and Ampeg SVTs doing their thing – they had incredible tone and riffs galore. With the band being around for so long it’s easy to forget how flawless and groovy the songs are and how they flowed amazingly between each other. There were some on-stage sound problems, it looked like, but even so they sounded great.
Afterwards there were a few “after-party” bands playing. First up was Steve Strong, the Handsomest Man In Math Rock doing his solo thing, laying down looped guitars and drumming over the top. He received a very enthusiastic reception in wee stage. His work always reminds me of DJ Shadow or any experimental hip-hop artists rather than your standard math band, with very intricate, but still totally in-the-pocket groove drumming over live loops. A sterling set to round off the first day.
As I have been told is always the case with ArcTangent, it always rains torrentially. The one year I’ve previously been, it was totally fine, but overnight it was heavily raining, and we were a little late to start due to a fucking thunderstorm kicking off around midday!
One of the beauties of a small festival is the ability to discover bands who I might not to have gone out and seen. One particular pleasant find was Itolyouiwouldeatyou. A band that is a bit hard to describe, one record they have quite a gentle feeling, whereas live they have a harder edge, punchy energetic drums and bass loud in the mix. The band, a six piece, started their set brimming with energy, colourfully dressed and androgynous. Several members sharing vocals and harmonies. Lead singer Joey showed passion and looked like he was really in his element and enjoying himself. Trumpet player and vocalist Luke, sharing his enthusiasm. The whole set had a warm, happy feel to it, despite some of the songs are sounds like they are borne out of personal struggles and other less than happy experiences. It’s hard to say what they sounds like indie, punky and a hefty dose of themselves.
Helmenbestormer are a dark, sludgy, post-metal outfit from Belgium. The five members all in black with mostly black equipment, not a band for a visual spectacle then! There sound is Pelican-esque but with more of the old school NOLA sludge vibe. ‘After us the Flood’ starts with huge, thick sludge laden riffs, as the track progresses through a few different moods, sometimes apocalyptic and sometimes layered with melodic guitar. Looking around the tent mid-way through, about 95% of the crowd was in a collective slow head-nod, which combined with the dark and smoky stage just seemed to suit the music perfectly. The second (and last!) track ‘Starless’ starts quite sparse but soon builds to become relentless, dark and dirty. As one riff slammed into place, the sky darkened, the heavens appropriately opened and strong winds and rain started lashing horizontally into the tent, soaking even those of us halfway in. Someone near me in the crowd raised their hands into the Doom Claw position (you know the one, like you’re holding two invisible oranges upright like you’re the Kali Priest from Temple of Doom) and screamed “MIGHTY THOR! WE GIVE THESE RIFFS IN OFFERING!” and it felt completely apposite. Definitely worth checking out. Also according to their bandcamp page, Hemelbestormer is Dutch for someone with revolutionary views, an idealist and someone with wild plans. Literally it can be translated as “sky stormer” or “stormer of heaven”, so it all checks out!
Undeterred by the weather, the crowd ploughed through the inevitable quagmire that the main festival area became towards the Arc Stage for Alpha Male Tea Party. There was a fair bit of talk about this band prior to their set and the people stretched way outside of the main-stage demonstrated this. Great to see them firstly create a buzz before the performance and command such a large audience. Newer material from their 2017 release Health seems darker and a bit more edgy than their previous stuff. There is a familiar feel there however. One thought on their performance is that they make a hell of a lot of noise for three guys. All three seemed to be loving the energy of the crowd, they played the majority of the set with broad smiles. When the familiar opening chords ‘You Eat Hummus, of Course you LIsten to Genesis’ started, the crowd surged with excitement, with even a bit of crowd surfing breaking out. The (far too short) set ended with ‘No More’, complete with choir, the song being dedicated to Dan (ex-Cleft, now of GUG with guitarist Tom), who has unfortunately had a relapse of some serious medical issues and is currently looking to raise money to travel abroad for urgent medical treatment (https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/danbeatcancer). A emotionally charged and dramatic ending to a great set.
Ohhms are old school, stoner-doom with definite vibes of Neurosis and Bongripper-y bits. I personally felt the vocals weren’t particularly strong on this outing, but they are good, solid, riff fun, playing more of the straightforward heavy songs than the ambient, drone or psych stuff in their catalogue. And, as expected, the heavens opened yet again….
A-tota-so are a newer, very hard-working band on the scene, playing fast, sharp, on-point math rock. They manage good coverage of the sonic spectrum without a bass and seemed very grateful to be on stage at ATG while only being a relatively new band – which is a bit daft, because Party Marty and Alright The Captain have been doing this stuff since about 1954, or something.
Listener are quite a hard band to pigeonhole. Sometimes spoken word, sometimes a bit shouty, lots of energy and some tragic story telling. Not someone either E&D crew had heard of but the crowd seemed to be faithful fans or possible instant converts. Dan Smith (vocals and bass) and the founding member (and presumably the creative force behind Listener) was passionate and energetic with his mid-western drawl strong in places and adding to the overall effect.
Hark are a band that sound distinctly old Mastodon, High on Fire, Baroness, Torche – things of that ilk. Overall, a good listen and definitely worth seeing, bbt nothing groundbreaking. Maybe the fact that the excellent new Dvne album has been on repeat maybe set the bar a bit high for this type of band.
With a complete change of pace, Frontierer brought the first really technical, hyper aggressive, fast music of the festival. In the finest traditions of Dillinger Escape Plan, Car Bomb, Tony Danza and other such math metal luminaries, from the first to the last second it was an unrelenting, brutal assault on the senses that left the audience wandering away bemused and shellshocked. Live, they are a spectacle not to be missed.
Back on the Yokhai stage were Bossk. They are essentially, post rock that suddenly turns into intense, heavy, post-metal / screamo style stuff with a *lot* of riffs. One of the discoveries of the weekend; the way a friend and colleague described it was “like post rock, except FUCK YOU!”, which is a good a description as any!
Vola were a band caught in passing. The best they can described them as sounding like Meshuggah playing pop music with clean vocals and synth pads. It was an odd combination of genres that didn’t really come across well.
Number 12 Looks Like You are a band that sound like very different, recorded and live. Heavy, mathy and hectic with a 7 string guitar and a 5 string bass. Insanely heavy live and to that end much of the detail from their recorded material is lost. Rather too much technical noodling at times.
God Is An Astronaut is one of those post rock bands that sound like a post rock band and have been around forever playing post rock to post rock fans. I mean, I’m sure it’s a moderately life-affirming uplifting experience to a moderately sized bunch of people, but compared to a lot of the exciting, energetic bands pushing genres this is all a bit 2005. Performance wise, they were definitely tight as heck and a lot of people enjoyed them, it’s all just a bit meh.
Converge are one of my favourite ever bands, so I was hyped to see them in the closing slot. They were tight, brilliant, and consistent all the way through, playing basically some preview cuts from the new record and a greatest hits list, of sorts, playing all the “singles” from the last fifteen years and some choice album track cuts. What really sealed it for me, though, was that they played the song ‘Jane Doe’ – one of their only long songs, veering into post-metal at times, and as such very fitting for this festival. Given that this was the track that got me into this type of music in the first place, I sang/screamed along at the top of my voice with a huge smile on my face. Full yas, as people north of the border say.
The silent disco was next, and there were a lot of very… shall we say, enthusiastic people, having a really good time. I’d never expected such a large bunch of guys in doom t-shirts to have quite the encyclopaedic knowledge of pop-punk that was on display in the main tent, singing their hearts out to AlexisOnFire and whatnot. Still, the other half of the crowd was probably going to Reel Big Fish gigs ten or fifteen years ago, hiding their checkered vans and trombones in a dusty storage cupboard shame.
VIP camping or not, lack of sleep was starting to get to many of us, the silent disco until 3am, rainstorms, snoring etc meant that saturday morning was somewhat of a struggle.
Another previously unknown band discovered via the ATG Spotify playlist were Poisonous Birds which despite sounding like a six piece are actually just two people (a guitarist and a drummer). After seeing them play a few tracks it becomes obvious that these two guys do the work of many more. The guitarist utilising various pedals and loops and the drummer using a fairly simple kit but also in charge of a laptop. The pair create nice and interesting soundscapes and uses some interesting and odd time signatures.
One possible cure to a hangover is to have it blown away courtesy of Boss Keloid. Painfully loud, crushingly heavy, detuned, mega fuzzy guitars, song titles about weed, Iommi-as-fuck riffs, album called “Herb Your Enthusiasm” – you get the picture! Alex Hurst’s vocal are powerful and soaring, with a Tankian style-chant sometimes. He also uses vocal effects and at times the vocals are used more like an instrument. There are very few moments to relax in their set. Style and sounds change both across the tracks and during them. It’s a bit like being thrown into a rough sea only to be spat out 45 mins later on a serene beach wondering what happened.
Over on the main stage were Toska, another band who are much heavier live. The bass is chunky and angular and slips from nice and clean to quite hard and heavy. The guitar has a fantastic tone, which I guess is expected as Rabea, who for the non-guitar nerds is a fairly well known YouTube contributor to various guitar channels. A talented band, playing complex instrumental metal. It always holds together well and the band evidently love doing their thing.
Spectres were on the main stage, and unfortunately they were unfortunately a big disappointment of the weekend. Their own take on the massive, shoegazey My Bloody Valentine sound from the early albums is great but live it came off as unenthusiastic, quiet, and anaemically thin tone-wise. Maybe they were suffering from sound restrictions on the main stage though; volume is a huge part of the sound for bands like this.
Another band unfortunately only caught in passing was Irk. They came across like a slightly more mathy Death From Above 1979 with weird but pretty funny stage patter. One on my “investigate later” pile.
Pijn reminded me of Russian Circles with a pedal steel guitar, pretty much – they cover a lot of different instrumental rock ground, going almost to black metal in certain sections. The dynamic, structural and textural variations song to song were large, which always impresses me; if you can’t say “it sounds like a Pijn song” because they all sound quite different, then that’s a good thing to me. Very impressive musicianship and songwriting and a lot of big grins on faces when the particularly satisfying crescendos hit.
Lost In Kiev, another French band – lots of French delegates at this festival! – reminded me a lot of Gallops, but in a totally different way. Rather than being dance-oriented, they were the guitar-oriented version of the big, epic, heavy stuff like the latest 65daysofstatic album. Maybeshewill with synths might not be the worst way to describe them. They were really, really happy to be on the stage as well, an enjoyable set from start to finish.
A common complaint/point of discussion is that all post-rock is boring, stuck in the past and all sounds the same. Well, that’s a fair point and quite true in some cases but Sleepmakeswaves tend not to fall into this trap. The band, probably more well known in their home territory of Australia, were enthusiastic and seemed to genuinely pleased to playing on this side of the globe. Their sounds is huge and expansive, quite upbeat in places and quite noisy in others. They ended the set with the wonderful ‘Great Northern’ and ‘Something like Avalanches’ both from, probably their best work ‘Love of Cartography’, a fitting a crescendo-laden way to finish a great set.
Filling the Bixler stage to overflowing was another Belgian band, Brutus. Compared to their debut recording (Burst, 2017) there was a little more of a post-rock and noise element that came to the fore. One disappointment is that Mannaerts’s voice didn’t come across well, whether it was bad mixing or a relentless touring schedule. The band were still their heavy, punchy and raw selves and I expect have earnt themselves new fans for their patiuclar brand of post-hardcore.
Well, what can you say about Boris? As a first live experience the the veteran weirdo noise artists were predictably, gloriously weird, with incredible guitar tone and nothing resembling a standard song structure, not even approaching it. Before seeing this band I didn’t know it was even possible to half-time what was already the world’s slowest doom riff, but they managed, with a 15 minute middle 8. One of the weirdest and greatest things I’ve ever seen. A lot of people were complaining that the volume was way too low for the all-encompassing, Sunn O))) type noise and the massive wall of Model Ts, Matamps and Orange heads they had behind them, and the world-ending 125-130db they usually put out, but you’ve got to think that the engineers were sticking to the sound limits for the main stage so as not to get in bother for next year. I absolutely loved it. I even bought the t-shirt, and I’ve promised my wife-to-be I would cut down on band t-shirts, so that tells you something.
Defeater are a Boston hardcore band, and they sound like a Boston hardcore band. If you like Boston hardcore, you should listen to Defeater. I mean, don’t take that the wrong way; I really like that stuff.
Employed To Serve are bleak, angry, downtuned, nihilistic hardcore, that reminded me of Ghost Of A Thousand and a lovely fast hardcore band from way back called battleofwolf359, mostly because of the vocal style. I was tipped off to come and see them, and really enjoyed them. They also featured the obligatory ‘madskull climbing thirty feet up the central tent pole” moment and the biggest pit going of the festival. They also definitely won the Biggest Riff Of The Festival award with their song ‘I Spend My Days Wishing Them Away’, with people wandering around making double metal horns and yelling the riff at each other for hours afterwards – “BOOOUUUUW DUH DUH DUH DUH DUH DUH DUH DUH DUH!”
If ever a band was ahead of their time, it’s Sikth. The whole djent / progressive metal thing in the UK began with this band that never got bigger than toilet circuit in their first run, but came back to a scene that developed basically because of them. I was never particularly into them first time around as I suffer from the Periphery Problem – which is that I can’t stand the vocals. There were a lot of sound issues and apparently some people being dicks in the crowd, and the frontman was banging on and on and on about old vs new material between every song. The moshpit was huge, but it looked like a good few people further back left with a bit of a sour taste in their mouths.
Explosions In The Sky were up last to finish off the festival. EITS are the blueprint for “nice, major key” post rock with Godspeed You! Black Emperor being the one for “gloomy, depressing, intense”. It is what you’d expect it to be, but they got a lot heavier, adding an extra member and more instruments to fill out the sound. There are more abrasive noise squalls than you’d expect from them, but otherwise much of a muchness; every bit of their catalogue still sounds the same. It was a perfectly nice way to end things!
It’s somewhat difficult to sum up three days packed with music. Of course, everyone had different highlights and what’s probably more important, new and interesting bands to explore. The only downside was that it is impossible to see everything! While some people argue ATG suffers from Big Fish Small Pond syndrome, with many acts returning year after year, the scope and spread of new artists remains diverse enough to keep it interesting.
It’s a lovely site run by lovely people with lovely patrons (who can often be seen enjoying bands and wondering the site). Also, a pleasing lack of people causing trouble, how many festivals can say that?