ArcTanGent 2018 (Festival Review)
Although attractiveness is subjective, ArcTanGent happens to be situated in an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – and if you visit it and look around, you’d probably agree with the government’s judgment for once. As for the music you can expect to experience at the UK’s most respected prog, math, and post-everything festival, it may serve a very specific niche, but the fans who love the styles in question tend to really fucking love them.
We’re not talking about music written, recorded, and performed with the intention of achieving mainstream success alongside the likes of Kanye and Katy Perry – although if that level of recognition ever became possible for ArcTanGent bands, our culture would be a much more interesting place. This kind of music is normally an acquired taste, something you turn to when you finally get bored of long streams of eighth notes, whoa-ohs, and sentences containing the words “baby” or “bitch”. Although a large portion of it may be commonly dismissed as “music for musicians,” you don’t have to have a PhD in metric superimposition or melodic minor modes to like it, and the diverse, variably musical ArcTanGent faithful make that obvious from the moment you step onto the 4G-free campsite.
Of course, the actual bands themselves have to know their shit – and Curse These Metal Hands (7/10) kicked off my ATG weekend with an unpredictable mix of post-brutality, doom, classic harmonised guitar parts, and the occasional clean section. Since Curse These Metal Hands are made up of members of Holy Roar stablemates Pijn and Conjurer, shades of both bands cropped up in the form of petrifying riffs, Between The Buried And Me-style chord progressions, neck-grinding grooves, and a generally progressive approach to composition and arrangement. The question of whether or not “Curse These Metal Hands” is a Peep Show reference is up for debate; if it is, I would’ve preferred either Coming Up For Blair, or Mama’s Cumquat.
Over on the Yohkai Stage, Rolo Tomassi (10/10) ripped through the first seven songs from Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It, the album that tore the metal world a completely new set of assorted orifices earlier this year. This live set did much the same to a packed second-stage tent; opening tunes Towards Dawn and Aftermath slowly built toward Rituals’ barely relenting assault, a masterful cross between Between The Buried And Me and The Dillinger Escape Plan, before Balancing The Dark, The Hollow Hour, Alma Mater, and A Flood Of Light showcased Rolo Tomassi at their best. There really isn’t anything this band can’t do, no matter which extreme they push themselves towards, and they remain fascinating even when they choose to occupy any point at all within the middle ground. They are the definition of genius; if you haven’t seen them live, you need to sort it out.
Jamie Lenman (10/10) is also widely regarded as a genius, able to transmute his life’s most traumatic moments into incisive lyricism, immediately recognisable riffs, and some of the best rock songs to ever emerge from the British underground. Although fans of Lenman’s old outfit Reuben naturally went apeshit for old-school songs A Kick In The Mouth, No One Wins The War, and Every Time A Teenager Listens To Drum & Bass A Rockstar Dies, this guy is far from a nostalgia act. With two (technically three) solo albums available for public consumption and enjoyment, plenty of newer cuts made the cut for this fully-electrified set, ranging from the frantic mathcore of One Of My Eyes Is A Clock and The Six-Fingered Hand to the singalong-inspiring Hell In A Fast Car, Waterloo Teeth, and All Of England Is A City; the more cathartic Long Gone and Mississippi; and even a well-chosen cover of Toto’s classic Rosanna. This was everything you could reasonably ask for from a 45-minute slot filled by a still-peerless songwriter.
Although Pianos Become The Teeth and La Dispute both sound great on record, at ArcTanGent the former fell afoul of energy-draining main stage sound issues, and the latter seemed to be having a lethargic off-day. It’s not really reasonable to definitively judge bands in those kinds of situations – but first-day overall headliners And So I Watch You From Afar (10/10) were so undeniably sick that for the duration of their set, everything else in the world melted away, to be replaced by a full run-through of last year’s long-player The Endless Shimmering. That album is dense enough on its own – but even as final album track Chrysalism came to a close, ASIWYFA weren’t done. Seven more songs were promptly unleashed, each one overflowing with high-speed notes and quirky melodies. Most impressively, And So I Watch You From Afar are never fatiguing, even when they shred like their lives depend on it.
Beyond the first night of silent disco karaoke and a handful of hours of sleep, Orchards (8/10) provided a valuable public wakeup service. Sprinting through a set strewn with catchy post-rock-flavoured alt-pop songs, Orchards were the first ATG band to get me checking out their back catalogue as soon as I could establish a half-decent internet connection. There are some serious bangers in there, and I normally cringe when referring to songs as “bangers”. Get started on Orchards’ YouTube channel for a selection of great singles; I recommend starting with Darling, which is fucking badass.
Poly-Math (10/10) continue to leap from one impressive achievement to another, whether it be completing an immense instrumental double album about the 1258 Siege of Baghdad or completely owning the Arc Stage at ArcTanGent. This was the first year that ArcTanGent’s main platform was positioned under the cover of a tent so high you’d expect clouds to form in the roof, and Poly-Math filled it with some of the best sound waves of the weekend. A proper description of Poly-Math’s live show would be incomplete without mentioning bassist Joe Branton’s stage presence; the guy barely stays still, dancing and repeatedly battering his instrument to within an inch of its life while his more sober compatriots focus hard on pulling off some completely out-there compositions. Is less more? Is it fuck; check Poly-Math’s on-record oeuvre for proof.
Conjurer (10/10) stood out like a flayed thumb at ArcTanGent’s sister festival 2000 Trees this year, but their beyond-brutal post-sludge fit in perfectly at ATG. In terms of raging intensity, Conjurer are very difficult to beat – vocalist-guitarist Dan Nightingale took to the front row without a mic, his screams audible at the back of the Bixler Stage’s tent, while the sheer brutality of this set’s heavier points inspired violent moshing and even a guy crowd-surfing away from the stage, heading in completely the wrong direction. Chaos reigns when Conjurer take the stage, but they’re always in control. Fair play to them.
Although diverse prog master Vennart (7/10) and the Oceansize-influenced Halo Tora (7/10) put in decent efforts, they were quickly overshadowed by Black Futures (10/10 isn’t anywhere near enough). Another 2000 Trees highlight from just over a month ago, Black Futures managed to top even that performance as their hazmat-suit-clad assistants stirred the crowd into a tent-wide circle pit. Although these guys would be capable of inspiring similar displays just with songs like Love, Riches, and Karma Ya Dig!?, going the extra mile and working out an unstoppable performance plan consistently makes their shows impossible to ignore or forget. More than that, Black Futures are just fun – and if something music-related isn’t enjoyable, what’s the point?
Before ArcTanGent, I already loved Leprous (10/10) – but their festival showcase cemented them as, for my money, one of the best progressive metal bands around right now. When you have one guitar basically playing djent and the other playing super-tight funk complete with appropriate tone and chord choices, both sides locking in together perfectly…I’ve never heard anything quite like it in a live setting before, and I definitely want to experience it over and over again. Each Leprous member is a virtuoso, but vocalist Einar Solberg’s falsetto really pushed everything over the edge for me. The amount of time and effort that clearly went into getting that good demands respect, and Leprous were lavished with it here.
Topping off an epic day, Glassjaw (10/10) turned the Arc Stage into a seething mass of post-hardcore-hungry punters. Classic Worship And Tribute tracks Tip Your Bartender, Mu Empire, Ape Dos Mil, Pink Roses, The Gillette Cavalcade Of Sports, and Two Tabs Of Mescaline made up barely a third of a set carefully divided between old and new material. Aside from the disappointing absence of Cosmopolitan Blood Loss, this was the perfect way to see off an evening completed by yet more karaoke, the full-tent singalongs lasting long into the night.
Anyone who claims women can’t rock is obviously a moron, and in 2018 there are plenty of role models prepared to prove the idiots wrong. Soeur (9/10) are part of the latest crop, pairing awesome musicianship with tasty riffs, freak-show time signatures, defiant attitudes, and great dual-vocal arrangements. Infinitely better than an alarm clock, and far more badass.
Ilenkus (8/10) have already made the best music video of all time for Over The Fire, Under The Smoke, and vocalist Chris Brennan is just as magnetic onstage as he is on camera. You can draw some clear lines between Ilenkus and The Dillinger Escape Plan using Brennan’s crowd-inhabiting, Greg Puciato-style stage presence and the band’s penchant for hectic, noisy mathcore – not to mention their willingness to practically turn themselves inside out in the name of getting the job done. Back on the Yohkai Stage, Bad Sign (7/10) levelled up with some massively improved sound, monolithic riffs, and jarring volume levels – but more of ArcTanGent’s most top-drawer performances were still to come…
Plini (10/10) comes literally from the other side of the world, the Australian guitar virtuoso having established himself across the planet through the magic of the internet. Adding fellow six-string wizard Jakub Zytecki was a brilliant move, allowing another of the best guitarists out there plenty of time to shine and shred his heart out. Ego and profligacy are not Plini’s calling cards; everything has its place, right down to the last finely embellished note. You can’t argue with pieces like Salt + Charcoal, Handmade Cities, or Electric Sunrise – unless you fancy being completely wrong.
Arcane Roots (Electronic, 7/10; Electric, 10/10) are currently in the process of stretching themselves into experimental electronica, converting a multitude of established winners into synth-driven chillout tunes. Since their first ArcTanGent set was their debut electronic performance, teething issues naturally arose – but there’s plenty of promise in the new approach, and Melancholia Hymns highlight Indigo went over particularly well. Later on, Arcane Roots pulled off one of the Yohkai sets of the weekend, drawing alongside Black Peaks (10/10) thanks to mutually awe-inspiring musicianship and yet another pair of idiosyncratic back catalogues. Black Peaks were undoubtedly the best band to play this year’s 2000 Trees, and they easily equalled that show at ArcTanGent with a salvo of songs including latest singles Can’t Sleep, Home, and Electric Fires. I’ve written so many evangelical words about Black Peaks that I’ll probably have to start reviewing them in other languages, just so I can use some fresh phrases. To that end: このバンドはすごくファックしている.
As the end of ArcTanGent 2018 slowly approached, Giraffes Giraffes (8/10) completely blew my mind. Two people should not be able to fill moment after moment with that many oddball guitar parts and octopus-limbed beats, but Giraffes Giraffes do exactly that. Myrkur (9/10) was the perfect act to follow on the Arc Stage; her songs marry wicked metal riffage to one of the best soprano/screaming performances you could ever hope to witness, and there’s plenty of space within each groove. When Myrkur and her hooded backing band begin exploring the more extreme end of the metal spectrum, they do so with total confidence – and Myrkur herself even pulls out a B.C. Rich Warlock, the ultimate pointy guitar. Not that she needs an instrument that could easily double as a dangerous weapon in order to prove her status as a badass metalhead; the music and her rising reputation already do that for her.
With only a couple of bands left to go at this point, last year’s official main stage favourites Toska (10/10) took to the PX3 Stage with four long and mostly unreleased instrumental pieces. Advance single Congress is just as stunning live as it is in audiovisual form, while A Tall Order, When Genghis Wakes, and ultimate roast Prayermonger got a love-sharing throng salivating over the November 5 release date of Toska’s debut album Fire By The Silos. That release is going to turn plenty of progressively-oriented heads when it drops; watch this space for a future review.
Shellac (7/10) were the most obvious choice for final ArcTanGent headliners, bearing in mind their minimalist rock pedigree and the presence of legendary recording engineer Steve Albini on guitar and vocals. But after all those other bands, the breathtaking explosions of energy, rage, and the-world-doesn’t-know-our-names-yet-but-it’s-going-to-if-it-kills-us hunger, even Shellac’s ultra-tight, carefully choreographed borderline performance art couldn’t rise above the best of the rest of the lineup. The far-from-PC Prayer To God was an obvious attention-grabber, along with Albini’s plane impression during Wing Walker, but a tediously extended End Of Radio wound up becoming challenging in the wrong way, a patience-incinerating endurance test that caused many audible sighs of relief when it finally came to an end. Fortunately Spoke finished ArcTanGent 2018 on a post-hardcore high and a good laugh, as Albini and bassist Bob Weston disassembled drummer Todd Trainer’s kit while the latter tried to keep playing.
Overall, the team behind ArcTanGent and 2000 Trees outdid themselves again this year. Underground music fans flock to both festivals in their thousands because they know they’re going to be able to get up close and personal with a long list of sick musicians, and this year’s events delivered that exact experience with almost no delays and a fuckton of professionalism. The number of top-scoring sets this year speaks for itself. Roll on ArcTanGent 2019.
OVERALL FESTIVAL RATING: 100%
Tickets for ArcTanGent 2019 can be purchased here.
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