One of the two dictionary definitions of “evolution” is “the gradual development of something”, which fits Roadburn Festival perfectly. This year’s tagline Redefining Heaviness gave this evolutionary process a label, but to me it’s not something specific for the 2023 edition of Roadburn. In fact, since the first time I set foot at Roadburn in Tilburg, back in 2016, the festival had already been evolving from the older, earlier editions, where the main focus was on the stoner, doom, sludge, and psych scenes. In the lead up to the festival I’ve heard some people complain online about this year’s line-up, as it had the least amount of “traditional” Roadburn bands booked in the history of Roadburn editions, and admittedly this year’s line-up was challenging at times with the number of different genres being presented, but also really exciting, paving the ways for future editions quite nicely. Roadburn has gradually grown into a forward-thinking festival, where a lot of the artists are the future big names of underground music.
But as I already said, I don’t think this is a new development. In fact, back in 2016 I heard people already say that Roadburn was changing, perhaps at that time with the big influx of more extreme metal bands. This year’s line-up still had options for the older Roadburn fans, with bands like Body Void, Bell Witch and Bo Ningen bringing the more classic Roadburn genres on stage, whereas the extreme metal fans had plenty to watch with bands such as Spirit Possession, Afsky, Ossaert, Predatory Void and Antichrist Siege Machine. So yes, Roadburn has been evolving as a festival and it will continue to evolve, and that’s what makes the festival so exciting. If you’re a fan of the old stuff, there are plenty of other festival options out there. If you want to discover new artists, dive into different genres, challenge your musical landscape, Roadburn is the place to be. I personally enjoy the challenge of discovering new artists and going out of my own comfort zone to see new, exciting acts perform, and Roadburn is one of the best places for these new discoveries.
One of those new discoveries for me was Backxwash, who I had heard vaguely of beforehand, but certainly had never heard a single note of music before their first performance on the Saturday, where they performed ‘MA NYIMBO YA GEHANA’, which loosely translates to ‘Songs of Hell’. Accompanied by a backing track and some of the heaviest bass of the festival they soon had a packed-out Engine Room full of metalheads losing their mind. The experience was so impressive that I watched their second set on Saturday as well. Watching both sets was completely unplanned. Deciding exactly what to see beforehand is something I decided to stop doing at Roadburn this time around. Go in unprepared and be happily surprised throughout all four glorious days.
Of course, I had some must see favourites, some I totally didn’t manage to catch (Spirit Possession, which was a hard lesson in queuing I learned early on; Wolves in the Throne Room, Cave In, Deafheaven and probably a bunch more. But there were some who I simply had to see. One example was Julie Christmas, a performer I’ve admired for a long time now and always impressed me live (well, the two occasions I managed to see Julie Christmas perform live with Cult of Luna playing their Mariner collaboration). Especially when I saw the news on her super group that was going to be her band for this performance, I just had to be there. And they did not disappoint, playing an eclectic set of new material, older songs and also some Battle of Mice and Made out of Babies classics.
Another huge must see for me was KEN mode, a band I’ve been following for a while now and never managed to watch live, and Roadburn was the perfect opportunity to finally add them to my “have seen” list. This was easily one of my favourite sets of the festival, they were absolutely ferocious, bringing their sludgey brand of noise rock in a super energetic captivating live set. The added saxophone screeching through the heavy bass/guitar combo was the icing on the cake, this was seriously impressive stuff. Go see them live if you ever get a chance.
The Flenser has been one of my favourite underground labels ever since I discovered Botanist in 2015. They’ve had quite an impact at Roadburn at the 2019 edition, were supposed to have a label showcase at the cancelled 2020 edition but were back this year in full force with performances by Chat Pile, Mamaleek, Giles Corey and Elizabeth Colour Wheel. But the biggest excitement for me was the secret show by Have A Nice Life at the Next Stage. Watching Have A Nice Life play Deathconsciousness in full back in 2019 was a life-changing moment for me, so when the mysterious “ARROWHEADS ARROWHEADS ARROWHEADS” posters started to appear on various lamp posts, I knew where I had to be. On the one hand it feels wrong to name a secret show as one of your favourite moments of the festival, as I know a lot of people missed out on catching the news update, never mind seeing the actual show, but it was a moment I will never forget. Just bloody amazing.
Elizabeth Colour Wheel did not disappoint either, closing one of the Koepelhal stages on the Friday night, playing mostly songs from their brilliant Nocebo release. Singer Lane Shi was in the crowd for the majority of the set, with the band as a whole delivering a superb performance. I sadly had to miss her solo set as otay:onii later during the festival, but I’ve heard amazing things from that performance as well. One of this year’s biggest hypes was Chat Pile, making their European live debut. After missing their secret show at the Hall of Fame (dammit!), they ripped the main stage at the 013 a new one. I’d say that the hype was totally justified! Giles Corey was an interesting performance, basically it was the Have A Nice Life band on stage playing a more acoustic set under the Giles Corey header, one of the solo projects by Have A Nice Life singer Dan Barrett. Having the whole band on stage made sense, as it brought more of a body to the quieter songs played live at a big music festival. There were some beautiful moments during that set for sure.
One of the highlights was seeing Mamaleek, this mysterious band where nobody really knows who the people in the band are, playing with masks over their heads on stage, which was one of their ultra-rare live appearances (I believe this was only their 3rd ever show). Their unique brand of avant-garde, jazzy, experimental rock was a fantastic addition to the Sunday line-up, where things usually have slowed down a fair bit, at least in terms of people having been on their feet watching so many live performances for 4 days straight. It was certainly one of the weirdest performances I’ve seen, but I will certainly cherish having witnessed this unique performance for a very long time. The fact that the set was dedicated to their former member Eric Alan Livingston, who sadly passed away at the age of 38 this year, made it even more memorable.
I missed seeing Bell Witch perform their latest album in full as they clashed with my pals in Ashenspire. Yes, I am biased here, I know the band personally as they’re from my part of the world, namely Scotland, so of course I had to watch their Roadburn debut show, and it was great to see their energetic set of avant-garde black metal (including saxophone!) going down very well with the crowd. They probably had the most fun on stage of any band I’ve seen during the festival as well, which was nice to see. Members of Ashenspire also play in healthyliving, who not only made their Roadburn debut, but also their live debut in general, and this was another solid performance where they introduced their newly released album Songs of Abundance, Psalms of Grief to the world. Healthyliving’s singer Amaya also plays in her solo project Maud the Moth, who I sadly had to miss. Another big clash in the timetable and I choose to see Teeth of the Sea, reckoning I probably get to see Maud the Moth at another opportunity seeing they’re based in Scotland as well. Sometimes at a long festival like Roadburn you need a performance that revitalises your energy levels, and the danceable psychedelic krautrock that Teeth of the Sea delivered was perfect in that sense.
Perhaps a bit too early in the danceable compartment was Thursday’s first commissioned project by John Cxnnor, opening the main stage at 15:40. I only knew that some guys from LLNN were involved, and LLNN is a really heavy sludge band I quite like, so I popped along out of pure interest. What I did not expect was a full on rave party at the 013 at 4 in the afternoon on the first day! Their delivery of thumping dark electro with the help of various guest vocalists, each playing the crowd in their own style was brilliant. I made an effort to see the other commissioned projects as well, as these are the type of performances that make Roadburn special, you’re not seeing these being performed anywhere else.
One of those commissioned projects was Trounce, a collection of Swiss musicians from bands like Coilguns, Kruger, Yrre and Closet Disco Queen, delivering a very interesting performance titled ‘The Seven Crowns and Arias of the Empty Room’, which included noise rock, experimental music, leading at times to the more up tempo beats more familiar with Coilguns’ music. The other commissioned project was Elizabeth Colour Wheel joining forces with Primitive Man frontman Ethan Lee McCarthy. If you’re thinking what the combination of Elizabeth Colour Wheel’s experimental noise rock with Primitive Man’s heavy doom/sludge would sound like, well, it sounds exactly like that. Weird, wonderful and at times earth rumbling heavy.
These were certainly my highlights of this year’s Roadburn, which as usually took me on a very different journey than I had initially anticipated. Sadly, I did not see any shows by the artists in residence, nor did I see many Rocket Recording bands, but I watched a lot of other amazing stuff. The thing with a festival like Roadburn is that you simply can’t watch everything, but whatever you end up seeing never seems to disappoint. Redefining heaviness indeed, though I wonder what the next step in Roadburn’s evolutionary journey will be.
Tickets for the 2024 edition are already on sale, so if you want to be part of the Roadburn experience grab a ticket here.