There are always moments at good festivals when things get a little much, when it feels like something is about to break. At this year’s edition of Roadburn that moment arrives at around 7.15 on Sunday evening. One of contemporary metal’s most pivotal figures, Justin K. Broadrick, is on stage, having flattened 013 the previous night with Godflesh. He’s accompanied this time – as part of Zonal – by Kevin Martin (better known as The Bug) and, just as importantly, by Camae Ayewa (a feminist Afrofuturist from Philadelphia who is best known for her work as Moor Mother). The music is a strange deconstructed reimagining of hip-hop, far heavier than almost all the metal bands that played over the course of the weekend yet also ambient in its attention to texture and detail. Beats the size of planets emerges. It feels like 013 might fold in on itself. “Help ain’t coming”, Ayewa tells us.
This moment isn’t just a new stylistic departure for Roadburn; it’s the moment at which the festival points to what is, hopefully, a slightly more ethnically diverse direction. This is an overwhelmingly white event, in which (for the most part) white men with beards play to hordes of white men with beards. The number of bands featuring women has gone up in recent years (although more could still be done), and it would perhaps be unrealistic to expect a festival predominantly focused on underground metal to take a radical stance on representation of women and of ethnic minorities, but nonetheless there is something rather fantastic about seeing a black woman helming the best performance of the weekend on the 013 main stage. With Zonal’s set feeling increasingly likely to cause a minor earthquake the longer it goes on, it’s pleasing to feel like the festival is exploding into the ether during one of more culturally representative performances in its history.
It’s particularly welcome after the much-hyped (including by this very writer) Future Occultism event that closed Thursday night in the Green Room. For an event that promised to engage with the future of heavy music, this was a shockingly pedestrian affair (and one composed of three totally different sets, without any hint of the collaboration implied in the pre-festival press). Even worse it started off with Bong-Ra wearing a headscarf and playing faintly orientalist sub-OM drum-and-bass doom with some Egyptian imagery in the background. There is enough cultural appropriation in the world of metal already. The future of the genre doesn’t need any more of it. Nor does it need any more Future Occultism. Bong-Ra’s set is boring and unimaginative, which is quite shocking from someone with such a long (if divisive) history of musical creativity as Jason Köhnen. Servants of the Apocalyptic Goat Rave’s is embarrassing. Playing in time is generally considered an advantage when performing fast music, but apparently nobody told this pair, who wield their axes like they are playing Guitar Hero in front of the mirror rather than performing at one of the most widely recognised heavy music festivals on the planet. Phurpa arrive too late and, even if their Tibetan incantations (oh hey, more cultural appropriation) are a soothing finish to what has otherwise been an enormously trying two hours, saving Future Occultism is beyond them.
Dark Buddha Rising and Oranssi Pazuzu’s collaboration as Waste of Space Orchestra, one of two specially commissioned performances at the festival this year, is a more successful example of living up to the hype. A mind-melting psychedelic odyssey, the two groups combine so cohesively that it’s hard to believe that they are premiering a newly composed set. The only complaint one could possibly register here is that, right at the start of the festival, it’s difficult to deal with something this consciously vast in scale and ambition. Then again, who else could have opened the main stage on Thursday? Earthless seem to have legions of fans (though I can’t understand why), Converge have attracted a small army of supporters to Tilburg, and Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas are such a seismic force of nature that performing Mariner any earlier than 9.30 may have practically ended the festival before it had even properly begun. Thankfully Uniform appeared in the early evening to kick the festival into an appropriately restless state of abandon, reminding those assembled in the Green Room that – no matter how many colossal psych or sludge odysseys exist – a dose of pure noise will always prevent Roadburn from tipping on its axis.
Friday is not quite so lucky. Motorpsycho’s mammoth two-hour set effectively does kill off the day at birth. Much like Magma’s exceptional performance last year, Motorpsycho’s performance exudes so much confidence in a strange mix of materials that it rather makes most other bands look like strangers in their own songbooks. Think what you will of the music Motorpsycho make – but seeing them live is affirmation that they do it very, very well. The same is true of drone master Dirk Serries, who brings his Scatterwound project to the Green Room for a set that remarkably manages to transform Roadburn – a haven of noise – into a peaceful oasis, for an hour at least. Converge do their best to push things back into chaos on the main stage but, as was the case in 2016, it’s hard to get too excited about seeing them on such a large stage. Equally, whilst You Fail Me may be a superior record to Jane Doe, it doesn’t work as well live… not that their legions of devoted followers packed into 013 seem to feel the same way.
An unexpected Friday highlight emerges late on in the shape of German funeral doom outfit Worship’s set at Cul de Sac. Theirs is an earnest performance (perhaps, if we’re being hyper-critical, a little too earnest) but in its lack of pretention it makes a welcome counterpoint to some of the ultra-serious doom sets on offer over the weekend. Bell Witch’s Saturday afternoon performance of Mirror Reaper is beautiful (and accompanied by a fantastic array of visuals), but it all gets a bit much halfway through. In contrast, Ivar Bjørnson and Einar Selvik’s performance of their latest collaboration, Hugsjá, remains consistently relatable throughout their seventy-five minute set. Pleasingly 013’s (generally) excellent sound means that the subtleties of their splicing together of prog rock and Norwegian folk remain intact. Panopticon don’t fare as well on the main stage, coming across very much like a band that doesn’t perform together very often.
The same can’t be set for some of Saturday’s other black metal acts. Mizmor do an exceptional job of communicating the massive scale of Yodh, even if the atmosphere is somewhat spoiled by the daylight streaming into Koepelhal (incidentally this is the only complaint one could possibly have about this excellent new addition to the Roadburn venue map). In Cul de Sac, Mania’s one man drum show (in which Nate Myers thrashes his kit to his heart’s content whilst a wall of amps in front of him act as the rest of the band) is a delightful exercise in demonstrating the best black metal’s emphasis on furious passion over all else. Kjeld communicate much the same. The Dutch troupe (a late addition to the bill, replacing Concatenatus) are nothing if not enthusiastic. A tall bunch, the five of them barely fit on to the Cul de Sac stage, and the bass player keeps nearly falling backwards over the outstretched boot of one guitarist. What they may lack in coordinated small stage manouvering, however, they more than make up for in commitment and intensity. Watching their blistering set, whilst most of the festival attendees were otherwise engaged with Godspeed or All Pigs Must Die, felt like a small (but genuine) privilege.
By the time Kjeld perform, of course, I’ve already been blown away by the sheer sonic might of Boris’ performance of Absolutego with Stephen O’Malley. This was one of those sets that had no right to be as good as it sounded on paper but – after (pleasingly) skiritng around the legendary album’s ironclad drone metal heart for a good while – O’Malley eventually gets to demonstrate why he’s there, as he and Wata plunge 013 into a rumbling abyss that feels a lot like drone heaven. It is, together with Zonal & Moor Mother’s performance, the highlight of the weekend. It’s also pleasingly followed up by Zola Jesus’ charismatic set of industrial pop over at the Koepelhal. To say that she sticks out on this bill would be an understatement, as would the claim that her set is a triumph. Sadly Erik Moggridge cannot muster a similar high out of his Aerial Ruin set in Het Patronaat. His folk lullabies are beautiful, but they are effectively cancelled out by hordes of people stomping on plastic cups on their way in and out of a nearly empty venue. A shame.
There’s no danger of Thou x The Body meeting a similar fate later on. With visuals from cinematic classics – including The Innocents and The Night of the Hunter – backing them up, the troupe take Roadburn into a feral hellscape that truly lives up to the words emblazoned behind them through much of the set: “Everyday, everything is getting worse”. Hell, whilst similarly intense on record, feel comparatively relaxed in Het Patronaat the following day. This isn’t quite as memorable a set as their 2016 performance, but it’s hugely pleasing to see one of the world’s premier doom bands perform to the packed house they deserve. In fairness, my recollections of their set may also have been supplanted somewhat by the bass reverberations from Zonal, which followed straight afterwards.
The festival effectively shuts up shop for the year with Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s second performance of the weekend. It may be hard to get as excited about a performance by the legendary Canadian ensemble as it was when they first returned to action a few years ago, but they still remain peerless in their field. So too does Roadburn. Whilst the festival still has some issues it needs to sort out (chief amongst those not already mentioned is some of the scheduling, which still seems rather nonsensical – as when Bell Witch play in Het Patronaat rather than on the main stage, prompting a queue that stretches all the way down to Weirdo Canyon), it remains in a class of its own.