The international plague shutdown hasn’t ‘made me realise’ how crucial live music is: I knew that already, even if sometimes I wondered about how something generally positioned as ‘entertainment’ could occupy such a significant position in a lot of people’s lives, mine included. Of course there are more important things than music in times of crisis, injustice and death- but to put it like that misses the point, since music will always accompany and respond to those and all other aspects of life, dramatic or mundane. But yes, I suddenly miss the regular outlet of an evening in the presence of amplified distortions. Even more so, I miss occasional music festivals, where the night of the gig expands in every dimension. And most of all, I miss the annual ritual of Roadburn.
Forced to cancel last year, and a full real-life 2021 event still impossible, Roadburn Festival went digital, and did a pretty impressive job of creating a sense of the famed event even while estranged from the physical. An online space featured music live streams, specially recorded sets, exclusive premieres, and random other bits and pieces that all appeared throughout the weekend. Like the festival itself, it appeared, measured out a hefty dose of mind-expanding musical offerings to a grateful congregation, and then was gone, leaving only (as always) the faint murmuring call of ‘will that set come out on vinyl?’
New things appeared at specific times, but you could go back to them later, though only until the following Tuesday. This was just right I think, meaning you could catch shows that clashed and rewatch favourites even several times over, but not forever… that gave a sense of urgency to each set, and a cohesive feel to the whole event, knowing it was all here but only temporarily. The ‘liveness’ of the live streams and even the exclusive sets, together with the chat comments running down the side meant that there was a sense of the collective experience, even if sometimes a bit dislocated, with people just starting on things you’d seen the day before, or reminiscing about something you were about to start watching. But after all, a weird sense of confusion about the order of events is pretty standard in attending a proper festival.
After a surprisingly emotional welcome from organisers Walter and Becky, it was straight in to the Kairon; IRSE! set, live from a storage bunker at the botanical gardens apparently, a gloomy space livened with coloured lights and incongruous bushes and plants. Their pleasantly proggy riffs were certainly very Roadburny, but just as I would’ve at the real fest, I listened for a bit before wandering off to see what else was going on: without any major must-sees, today was mainly for figuring out how the event was constructed and how I’d approach it. Tau presented an interesting sort of declamatory progfolk, though I was more interested in the seated guitarist’s light hot scuzz in the instrumental bits than the slightly over-serious anthemic singing. Actually rather than the full sets, what caught my eye today were the video premieres by Noctule and An Autumn for Crippled Children, both modernish black metalish prospects, and both drawing on what I call the ‘twig monochrome’ school of music video that featured heavily in the weekend’s selections, gloomy and/or shaky footage gone wandering in the woods, sometimes finding creepy branch bundles, smoke and fire, or musicians wearing floaty/bedraggly clothing (see also Oslo Tapes, Of Wolves, Thy Catafalque, Darkher…). Noctule’s track ‘Evenaar’ was a great example of black metal songwriting, avoiding the overly foregrounded vocals which always send me running for the shadows, instead following in sound the horror movie adage that it’s more atmospherically compelling to hint than to shove up front; An Autumn… chimed in with a faintly euphoric chunk of post-metal, accompanied by forests overlaid with filmic abstractions. Having not sufficiently studied the plans, I was mistakenly expecting full sets from everyone, so I was a bit surprised that Noctule ended after that song, hoping for another half hour or so… Once I’d got the hang of the range of stuff available, it was great to slot in a 12 min promo here or a 20 min set there (and even a “documentary” about LLNN that barely lasted three minutes), between the stuff I wanted to catch immediately and on time. By afternoon on Friday I was well stuck in, conjuring up an amazing selection of sounds from the endless stream appearing on the site.
It felt like there was even more room for the hushed ambience than is often the case. Roadburn is always great for including some heavy hitting drone, but the intimate oddness of the homeburn meant more sets that could take it way down without being trampled on by overly high-spirited yelling chats at the bar. Nadja provided an impeccable set of abrasive drones to accompany a post-pasta lunch recline… No iceberg-calving riff drop kicking in in this particular set, instead a slow build, savage serrated morass, a hopping bass riff (played at times with a string-scratching spoon) running through a field of nettle distortion. Dirk Serries is a Roadburn drone fixture, in memorable recent sets by Yodok III and Fear Falls Burning. Here he contributed a great Sunday starter, a creeping piece fuelled by soft beater drums, crackly effects and bowed guitar. Die Wilde Jagd’s first set also impressed, deploying ‘handbuilt wooden organ pipe’ among other curiosities pulled out of the musical dressing-up box, creating a slow, tidal ambience that sounded like the heaving sighs of the breathing cosmos. Short bits from artists I’d never heard of also hit the spot, such as Alora Crucible’s late Thursday premiere that I can’t remember anything about except that I loved it, and the swishing drifts of Offermose (I was deciding on Monday what to pick from what I’d missed, and Walter popped up on the chat to recommend it… who was I to argue?). In a more beat-driven realm I liked the late-night banging rhythms from Gallops, while the sofa setting meant that I TWICE managed to unintentionally schedule a magical psychedelic afternoon sleep accompanied by the trippy pulsing electronica of Blanck Mass.
Even some of the big hitters used the opportunity in their distanced sets to head for more subdued, introspective or intimate territory. While (shock!) I haven’t ever been especially moved by music involving Steve von Till, I tuned in to what probably equated to something like a Saturday main headline set to find a kind of homely cabin-in-the-woods feel where the Neurosis man was joined by players of french horns and cellos and strings and things to deliver a set of poignant but hardbitten songs. The filming was a bit over-eager with endless unnecessarily fades between shots, but that didn’t take away too much from the barren, brittle bones of the songwriting and the nuanced soundworld. Spending more time than I ever would at the real festival with singer-songwriter style sets, I also enjoyed the rustic calm of Johan G. Winter, the melodrama of The Devil’s Trade and the aptly named ‘chants from another place’ of Jonathan Hultén. Another set from a monster of American post-metal was provided by Aaron Turner late on Sunday, who conjured sombre tones in a solo set which started out in shadowy murmurs for 25 mins before being slashed by a blistering judder of guitar into a snaking, spitting track that roved across a pretty wide experimental ground.
Live from the 013 on Friday was GOLD, The Dutch experimental band extending their previous deadpan, severe musical treatment of topics around manipulation, abuse and the societal bullshit norms that enable them, with an even more personal approach to trauma and misogyny as described by Milena before the set. This gave their avant-pop constructions a relentless intensity, and the deep silence after each song was as fitting as massive applause would have been, keeping the focus locked in an airless bubble, a claustrophobic articulation of violence that could perhaps transform that horror into a more liberating way of processing it. Musically there was evolution too, with the songs constructed with harsh clcks, zeeps and shlarps that marked a major turn towards synths. The stage was spacious but the experience was close-in and absorbing, helped by particularly incredible sound; the band pulled off a triumph, managing to deliver a set in an otherwise empty venue that felt like a genuine main stage headline set.
Over the years to be honest I probably spend less and less time at the main stage, part of the reason being that I’m often most interested in whatever underground furiousness is on the schedule. Black metal for me just needs to be a bit more hemmed in, the thick air of a packed matt-black painted small room matching the soft-snow fuzz that announces the beginning of a cult tape demo… even Patronaat was a bit too big for black metal in my opinion, notwithstanding fantastic sets by Fauna and others there in the past. In search of the internet equivalent of the Green Room/Batcave/Cul de Sac/Hall of Fame black metal experience, this year there were some great offerings. Autarkh and Wesenwille were technically impressive, but it was the first sight of candelabras and foul-looking incense that signalled what I was looking for, appearing for Regarde les Hommes Tomber’s roaring set. Dawn Ray’d beamed in an activist black metal snack, presenting two songs from the shining surroundings of a church in the UK, before a surprise addition of typesetters nightmare Marghöfđa Dýriđ, a new Icelandic black metal combo adding swooping operatic strings to flinty atmospheric savagery, in an premiere of a recording I’ll be hunting for as soon as it comes out later this year. There’s always some brilliant Dutch black metal… this time I thought it would be Solar Temple but that turned out a bit differently, but fitting the bill was another duo Doodswens, whose short set was a brilliant dark burst of tightly woven fury.
Mizmor won the prize for most obvious pandemic reference, with a new long song accompanied by a neat animated video full of plague doctors, demons, noxious fumes and people getting burned at the stake, all in the style of medieval woodcuts and engravings grave-robbed a hundred times by all your favourite underground zines, labels and album covers. Also welcomed like old friends were Year of No Light and Primitive Man, both presenting lengthy new slabs of serious riffing noise, each satisfying while still increasing the anticipation for more material. For me the best black-metal-flavoured item was Wayfarer (complete with spaghetti -western titles in Italian, and a promo image which somehow makes both a great mock-film poster and a fearsomely ugly shirt design). The absolute masters of make-you-drive-the-stagecoach-faster black metal, there was complexity in the harmonies, bassline and rhythms that still never distracted from the onward surge, quite brilliant but all too short (which leaves me thinking, what other 20min set would I put on the flipside of the imagined split LP?).
Having seen Wayfarer in London the night before leaving for the last Roadburn, this was a good example of the continuity that was afforded by the online fest: an important aspect of any edition of the festival is reminiscing about previous great sets. That was provided for here in an audio rerun of Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou’s set from 2019, which felt like a magically-enlivened version of the subsequent record that came out of that collaboration. Another premiere was Wolves in the Condo, that came from one of the segments of the brilliant 2019 Maalstrom performance which collected Dutch black metal, noise and industrial components in what was almost an avant-garde theatre performance about black metal’s mental split between the rural and the urban. The Wolves piece available here was a first listen of a forthcoming 7”. Sadly its vague electronic peeping didn’t live up to my memories of any of the Maalstroom event, but at least gave the opportunity to think up some more urban black metal gentrification band names… Wolves in the Artisanal Coffee Shop? Wolves in the Yoga Studio? I Will Lay Down My Bones Among The Discarded Print Cartridges And The Broken Smartphone Chargers?
With Roadburn you can expect unexpected brilliance: a definite highlight in this category was Neptunian Maximalism, who I didn’t watch live but caught up with the next day by which time everyone was already raving about it. Justifiably so, as it was enormous in scope and ambition, a kind of progmetal Arkestra with the serene cosmic tones, jaggedy complexity and far out themes that Sun Ra himself might have appreciated. Even though I watched it out of time, it fitted totally with the Roadburn tradition of providing late events of significance, for the midnight times once your listening mind has been well and truly cracked open and the festival wisely decides that you are now ready for some next level shit. A perfect match with Roadburn in this vein is the hyperactive Dead Neanderthals, where you never know quite what you’re going to get, but you can trust that it will be both excellent and mad. Here they offered an insistently piercing motorik set, as bold as the distinctive colour bars that lit them up throughout. For collaborative maximalism, the double-header of The Nest and Wolvennest were great collective sets of pulsing ritualism, featuring a wide variety of invited luminaries that felt, not just like a musical creation but also a communal gathering of friends which included the audience too.
I started listening to both the Nero di Morte and Plague Organ sets in the morning catch-up, but got distracted and felt inadequately caffeinated to fully encounter both, so meant to give them another go later but in the end ran out of time. The chat towards the end of the weekend featured a number of people saying ‘nooooo all of these sets should be available forever!’ but I think that’s to misunderstand how the festival idea was constructed here: you needed to be able to miss things and for them to disappear to fuel the festive urgency and unpredictability of finding them and enjoying them in the moment (though the limited safety net of a short couple of days for replays was certainly welcome).
I felt especially for the pandemic effects on Jo Quail, having had presumably the dream call of getting a Roadburn commission, but then having her major piece postponed and then delayed again. She sent in a lovely solo piece recorded at London’s beloved and hopefully rescued Black Heart, full of woody sinews and cavernous hums of the cello, bringing in smeared loops and resonant bashes. Darkher’s minimalist new song video was also a highlight, all cliffs and trees, acoustic simplicity matched with stark nature. I enjoyed popping in on the surprising ‘Joy Division on summer holiday’ aesthetic of Death Bells, as well as spotting the much-delayed first SunnO))) shirt worn in Body Void’s great doom-noise set. I’ve always found Inter Arma on one hand a ferocious live proposition, while on the other they don’t really ever hold my attention on record. They ran through a range of covers from Minor Threat to Creedence Clearwater Revival, with the best rendition a sludgy run-through of Venom’s ‘In League With Satan’, unmasking the joyous camp at the heart of black metal (and I wrote that down even before they starting interspersing the live footage with kitten videos).
Continuity and difference were the themes of the comments in the chat as well as in the ‘People pretending to be at Roadburn’ Facebook group, celebrating that they didn’t have to queue to get into their own living room, lamenting their lack of fine Trappist ales, and best of all, welcoming their pets to a first cat-friendly edition of the fest. The photos posted of everyone’s homeburn setup were all different and all identical, a screen, a beverage, a homely background and some comfy socks. And for every single set shown, you could probably find a handful of commenters enthusiastically declaring that it was THE BEST OF THE WHOLE FESTIVAL. They were right only if they awarded that honour to Solar Temple. The Dutch pair, despite a more black-metal-inflected couple of tape releases, here swerved expectations a bit by embarking on an expansive hour of clanging churning freeform riff highway, a deep kosmische hallucination of some of the furthest out 70s hippies, wafts of Parson Sound’s stentorian dirges but with the lightness of touch of Popol Vuh. Watching the seated player’s octopus musicality was astounding, as he riffed along happily on guitar while playing drums with both feet, the bass drum with tambourine taped to it giving the whole set a distinctive core thread. The first riff had an odd little wobble in it, like a slip of the hand in the wet clay of a pot that smooths out to become an integrated part of its distinctive shape as the riff goes round on the wheel; a more elaborate riff was explored for a long second track, and the final section was surging feedback accompanied simply by more rhythmic percussion. All great memorable themes unpacked in expert complexity, with a just perfect resonant guitar tone, crunchy, harmonically intriguing and soaring at once. But the third rough section out of four in the set (side 3, therefore, of the double LP that MUST HAPPEN SOON WHY NOT ALREADY) transcended even that level. It was extraordinary, a flowing riff picked out in grandiose melancholy and then allowed to gradually flower in gritty soaring noise… over the course of the weekend I kept looking for gaps in the schedule so I could stuff it into my ears yet again.
The random bits on the side as ever were good value, even if I didn’t manage to catch as much as I thought I would… the Vinyl Veda Vault looks on paper like an ‘industry professional chat’ that couldn’t be duller, but it’s not only fascinating but repeatedly so- I actually try and go every year when it’s on the program and always learn something new about the technical intricacies (and absurdities) of what goes on in the actual pressing of all these records. Oddly, unexpectedly moving was the showing of a documentary We Are the New Chimeras, a film about the Feux de Beltane fest in France, featuring an entertaining array of eccentric characters talking about the making of a festival world, its painstaking construction of values in practice that contrast with a surrounding consumerist culture. Sometimes a bit exaggerated in its utopian idealism, it nevertheless had some smart down-to-earth thinking about paganism and ritual, about the mistake of pursuing supposedly ‘pure’ traditions, and about abandoning any need for mystification and symbolism when sometimes contemplating time and nature and not knowing is enough. I wondered about how the off-grid, hidden aspect of the event would be sustained given I was learning about it in a film, so there was a mournful inevitability about the final ‘what happened next’ text appearing on the screen at the end, announcing that the festival had been held for the last time.
Roadburn, though just as missed in these years of drought, is clearly a festival with a future, given the innovation combined with commitment to the riffs evident this year. The online world of Roadburn Redux was, of course, absolutely nowhere near the riotous wonder of the real thing. But at the same time, it got far, far closer to that magic than I imagined possible for a digitally distanced event. A fantastic achievement from all involved.