Festival Review – ArcTanGent Festival 2019

ArcTanGent has been a highlight of my musical calendar for the past four years, providing a chance to see loads of captivating bands whilst hanging out with good pals. A relatively small and fairly niche festival, ArcTanGent has everything going for it – unrivalled lineups, a fantastic atmosphere, a friendly crowd, a compact and easily navigable layout, decent food stalls, nice beer and cider… But the festival has no luck whatsoever with the weather, which has proved a bit of a problem each of the years I’ve been and this year was no different as Friday saw torrential downpours for about 12 hours. 

Not only did this mean that dashing between stage tents and any other safe havens (shoutout to the troopers at the board game cafe tent, by the way) resulted in getting soaked but the ground became a mud bath for the remainder of the weekend. Thanks to some improvements from the organisers – the addition of walkways, an adapted layout, and an expanded bar and merch area – and a good-natured crowd that pulled through, the horrid conditions were made much more bearable than they had any right to be. By the time Brutus, Friday’s joyous headliners, took to the stage the rain had subsided, jackets were being shed and drinks shared.

As with all past ArcTanGents, the vast majority of the crowd are there to enjoy the music and the good vibes, and with a broad range of acts, admittedly within fairly distinct sub-genres, on offer I doubt anyone left disappointed. Every act I saw put in a stellar stint, quite a few through various technical issues, and it’s truly difficult for me to pick out a highlight from a festival that featured so many great performances, but here is my attempt. Below are the bands that really stood out for me.

First of all, some honourable mentions: The duelling drummer noise-rock of Cattle, The St Pierre Snake Invasion’s merry and angular punk, the electro-punk of Raketkanon, and Rad Pitt’s pacy hardcore all brought a huge smile to my face. Thursday headliners Coheed & Cambria were pleasant to watch, especially when playing their older material, and seeing And So I Watch You From Afar celebrating their ten year anniversary with a playthrough of their debut was just marvellous. Elsewhere, LLNN and Zu provided two different approaches to levelling the audience – LLNN’s Neurosis by way of Will Haven was unyielding and Zu’s jazz-noise-metal hit hard. 

Ithaca – Photo by John Higham

Enthusiastically kicking things off, London-based hardcore quintet Ithaca barely let up for their 30 minutes on the PX3 stage. They may have been scheduled against the Dan Wild-Beesley tribute on the main stage, but Ithaca drew a sizable early crowd that was not shy at all about starting a pit from opening chugs of “New Covenant” onwards. Ithaca’s furiously passionate and vibrant performance was epitomised by the carnage wreaked during the guitar-squealing, confetti-launching beatdown of their final song, the marvellous “Impulse Crush”. 

Following on from Ithaca and then the quirky, upbeat punk of Cocaine Piss, Bossk were a different prospect altogether, slowing things down considerably, but were in no way less enjoyable. Nonchalantly walking on to the main stage to commence the long, gradual build of instrumental “I” in front of a backdrop of cosmic imagery, the post-metallers were on top form and played to an appreciative crowd that held a distinctive herbal scent. As singer Sam Marsh made his way to the mic for the first time, Tom Begley’s unmistakable bassline intro to “Atom Smasher” drew a big cheer and raised fists from the Arc crowd, and the mid-tempo riff of “Heliopause” scored lots of approving headbangs. I’ve said it before and I’ll no doubt say it again, Bossk are one of the most engrossing and consistently outstanding live bands going, and this set was no exception.

Conjurer – Photo by Carl Battams

Another enthralling live band, Conjurer, were a definite must-see for me, and they did not disappoint at all. Looking comfortable performing to an ArcTanGent that clearly knows the Midlanders well, but with a snarling hunger, Conjurer flew through their 45min slot like seasoned pros. As a crushing and at times grooving blend of sludge, post-metal and hardcore blasted from the PA during “Choke” and “Hollow”, the quartet’s eagerness and bloodthirstiness resonated admirably with a clamouring crowd. Conjurer are continuing to grow and along with a few notable others, many of whom played this same bill, are leading the charge of the current crop of young and exciting UK metal bands. 

Pijn, the Manchester-based collective played songs from 2018’s heart-wrenching Loss with a cellist flanked by two violinists taking centre stage. This was the fullest complement of musicians I’d seen Pijn perform with and their expansive, emotive sound benefited immensely from the extra layers added by the strings. Deftly raising tension and releasing in explosive, riffy and screaming outbursts on Pijn should be applauded for making post-rock compelling and engaging again. 

Frontierer – Photo by Jonathan Dadds

Arriving at the festival site just in the nick of time for their stage headlining set on Friday, in a flurry of activity Frontierer got their gear set up quick-sharp and despite their own strobes not working the incandescent quintet unleashed an absolutely relentless assault on the senses that was a sight (and sound) to behold. After a day of hiding from merciless rainfall and feeling a bit chilled, the hive of activity within the pit during the likes of “Fluorescent Nights”, “The Molten Larva” and particularly “Gower St” was exactly what I needed to warm up again. There’s something mesmerising about Frontierer’s chaotic aural and visual onslaught – whilst dispensing screeching guitar lines, complex rhythms and throat-shredding vocals Pedram Valiani and co were also far from shy about joining the stream of crowd surfers, or in the case of Dan Stevenson, climbing the stage structure. 

Friday night’s PX3 headliners Brutus have come a long way since their previous ArcTanGent appearance in 2017. Back then they seemed a bit nervous, now the punky post-rock Belgians looked right at home during their hour-long show. The trio’s excellent sophomore album Nest is bound to feature heavily on end of 2019 lists and Brutus started their set with the softish “Fire” before upping the tempo through the pacy stampeding drums and echoey guitars of “Ceremony”. From then on Brutus had the packed out tent (thankfully for those on the periphery the rain had calmed down) eating out of their hand with an assured and vivid set that lifted fairly evenly from Nest and Burst. There were moments that the bass was lost but drummer/vocalist Stephanie Mannaerts’ propulsive, enthralling performance and guitarist Stijn Vanhoegaerden’s deceptively intricate playing were flawless. I don’t think anyone left the PX3 without a massive grin on their face after Brutus’ triumph.

Another show that brought good times and positive vibes was this collaborative effort from Pijn & Conjurer, who played through their splendid Curse These Metal Hands album in full. Although the album had only been released the day before, many in the audience already knew at least a few of the four songs, and those that didn’t were still drawn in by the appealing, bright nature of the tunes and the buoyant performance from the band. A celebration of friendship and the positive side of metal, the quintet started their set with a shot, a cheers and a handshake, and during their life-affirming half-hour slot they encouraged the crowd to carry this good nature with them. This was symbolic of the festival weekend and with the sun making a reappearance, Pijn & Conjurer’s Saturday afternoon set went down an absolute treat.

Cult Of Luna – Photo by Carl Battams

What followed on Saturday evening was probably one of the best runs of bands I’ve ever seen at a festival and it all started with the utterly breathtaking Cult Of Luna. Right from the first note of new song “The Silent Man” the Swedish post-metallers held everyone’s attention with their layered and impactful long-form compositions. Afforded one of the best sounding sets of the weekend the swathes of keyboards, the driving percussion from two drummers and the layered guitars combined to create an epic, enthralling show from Cult Of Luna. The melodic, sombre tones of the more restrained moments acted excellently as counters to the distinctly crushing heavy sections. Bathed mostly in backlighting and the occasional burst of colour such as the green lights flashing in time to the pulsing synth during “Finland”, Cult Of Luna as silhouettes may look largely anonymous but this just added to the atmosphere. They may have played over their allotted time, squeezing in a stirring rendition of “In Awe Of” but no one was complaining. 

Employed To Serve – Photo by Jonathan Dadds

Not wanting to miss a note of Cult Of Luna meant that even with a mad rush through the mud to the Bixler tent for Employed To Serve’s barnstorming headline show I missed the first few seconds of opener “Eternal Forward Motion”. Guitarist/vocalist Sammy Urwin and vocalist Justine Jones both commanded the stage from start to finish, demanding more and more from the jam-packed tent and the crowd were more than happy to oblige. This performance was a major accomplishment for this young British metallic hardcore band, and Employed To Serve gloried in the constant flow of crowd surfers, the insatiable pit and the rapturous applause. 

Meshuggah – Photo by Jonathan Dadds

A UK exclusive and billed as ArcTanGent’s biggest headliners yet, there was a definite heightened sense of anticipation for Meshuggah’s festival-closing set and the siren-like tone emitting from their intro track playing for a good few minutes before they appeared on the Arc stage only served to increase excitement further. It’s difficult to review Meshuggah without repeating what many others have said about them before but the Swedish math-metal five-piece were everything you’d expect them to be and more.

Yes, they were absolutely clinical and played with mechanical precision. Yes, the syncopated djenty riffs were ground-shakingly heavy. Yes, their synchronous light show was mesmerising. Yes, Tomas Haake’s drumming was astounding. Yes, Jens Kidman’s between-song patter was patchy (boasting about having nice clean shoes to a crowd of people not far from getting trench foot didn’t go down too well). They might not be the most charming, but for over an hour, Meshuggah showed that there are few that can match the power and technicality of their dazzling brand of extreme metal, blasting through top picks from Nothing, ObZen and Koloss. There was a bit of apprehension from some ATG attendees thinking that the festival was moving away from its post-rock/math-rock base but Meshuggah had received a great reception and put on a powerful showcase for the heavier end of the ATG niche.

Gojira next year, aye?

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