Reflections on Roadburn 2016

It’s hard to believe that a week has already passed since Roadburn 2016. The Partner and I are still mentally paying for things with green plastic tokens and trying to plan our days according to a much-loved running order print-out. Having offered predictions of some of the 2016 edition’s Weirdest moments, I’ve now gathered my thoughts coherently enough to offer some post-festival reflections.

Roadburn was noticeably fuller this year, with the organisers able to sell more tickets due to the expansion of the 013 venue. 013 now looks even sexier from the outside, and has lost the ‘Bat Cave’ stage to make the already impressive main stage bigger and better. Queues for popular gigs were noticeably longer than in 2015, especially in the small Cul De Sac venue. Extase – a bar around the corner from 013 – was used for the first time this year to replace the Bat Cave. While the location’s perfect, the bar’s full of character, the venue has decent sound, and the outside seated area with piped music is a great spill-out zone, Extase seems unfortunately just a bit too small to meet the demand. Still, in our experience, there was never loads of queuing thanks to a little forward planning and it was always possible to get a good view in a small venue eventually if you were prepared to wait for the crowd to disperse.

Having seen approximately 29 artists across 3 days (and an extra evening) of the festival, I’ll restrain myself to writing up the highlights – no mean feat since the line-ups consistently set the bar so very high.

Roadburn is famous for inciting unusual and exciting collaborations, and this year was no exception. Mirror Dawn, a partnership between Finnish acts Hexvessel and Arktau Eos who both performed separately earlier in the festival, brought out the best in both bands. Hexvessel, for example, gave a fine performance separately but were occasionally in danger of getting a little carried away with their spiritual/fantastical lyrical content (“fertile magic staff” anyone?), while Arktau Eos can get absorbed in the ritual practice of their act leaving their music almost as an adjunct. With Mirror Dawn, however, the acts combined to produce an hour-long set given narrative logic by good songwriting and musicianship, which – featuring subtly-evolving lyrical and melodic refrains – felt like a finely-crafted concept album based on a long-lost Weird tale.

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Blood Moon was a collaboration featuring hugely-influential hardcore act Converge and their mates: Ben and Chelsea from Chelsea Wolfe, Steve Von Till from Neurosis, and former Converge member Stephen Brodsky currently in Cave In. In all honesty this felt like a strange collaboration from the outset, perhaps instigated more by friendship than obvious musical parallels. Converge’s music is aggressive, dissonant and angular, while Chelsea Wolfe are heavy yet dreamy and delicate, always melodic and melancholic. Neurosis and Converge share common musical heritage yet Steve Von Till only sang on one track – dark and powerful neo-folk, similar to his solo work. Furthermore, this felt like Converge’s show. Blood Moon consisted of reworked versions of their slower material (you’ll have to go elsewhere for details, I’m afraid, as they’re a little off my radar), and begun with two, short brutal tracks to show the punks they haven’t gone totally soft. Despite the oddness, however, I felt like it came together in the second half, with Converge mainman Jacob Bannan and Chelsea duetting to arresting effect, demonstrating the vocal diversity and formidable stage-presence of the former and the fragile, haunting keen of the latter.

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Úlfsmessa, the third notable collaboration Weird Metal Blog witnessed, was the climax of a thread arranged by artist-in-residence, Icelandic black metallers Misþyrming, signed to the predominantly cassette-based label Vánagandr. A ten-person ensemble featuring Misþyrming and various label-mates (Naðra, Grafir, NYIÞ) obscured by black balaclavas, Úlfsmessa was an hour-long exercise in exhausting ferocity, superb musicianship, and terrifying atmosphere. The anonymity of the members made it a guessing game, with clearly different voices – blackened rasps, pugnacious punkish shouts, and baritone drones – all seeming uncannily to emerge from the same figure. Whomever was performing, Úlfsmessa reaffirmed black metal as the most uncompromising and rewarding of metal’s subgenres.

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Weirdest moments? Blood Ceremony‘s glorious closing set, as predicted, for the extent to which imagery of Weirdness and gothic horror permeates their songs. No ‘The Great God Pan’, but we did get ‘The Eldritch Dark’ – a hearty tale of black magic sacrifice. Not to mention their surprisingly-effective inclusion of prominent flute melodies into otherwise good-old-fashioned 70s proto-doom rock.

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Also, NYIÞ’s performance in Extase achieved Weirdness in form as well as content. Using acoustic instruments and ritualistic paraphernalia alongside a more traditional band set-up, NYIÞ played a largely quiet set of drones, chants and ominous soundscapes, with a trumpet player adding a mournful and emotive edge. At one stage members prowled amongst the crowd, with their guitarist eventually prostrating himself right next to us, still clutching his instrument. As the band continued to play, he remained still and quiet – to the bemusement of the crowd – until, from out of the blue, NYIÞ launched into a violent, painful cacophony, with all instruments playing at once. This sudden outburst was genuinely shocking enough as it was, so sharply did it contrast with the rest of the set, coupled with the guitarist now freaking out on cue from his prone position by our side, wildly attacking his Jackson to the extent that I half expected him to rise covered in blood and shrapnel.

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The Weirdest moment, however, belonged to Diamanda Galás, who performed on the main stage and also gave a Q&A following a screening of a short film, ‘Schrei 27’, for which she created the soundtrack. Her solo piano set, spot-lit in a large dark hall, suggested the formality associated with opera houses and classical music venues. Not a location in which one expects to hear covers of Johnny/Rose Cash numbers, traditional songs and obscure poetry, sung in a voice as disturbing as it is unique, with constant virtuoso shifts in register and timbre, and accompanied by sprawling piano parts, chords hammered, made dissonant yet still recognisable. It quickly became clear that Galás has been channelling the same forces of sonic terror as many metal musicians through a different medium for many years.

Despite the innate Weirdness of this performance – which my description does little justice – it pales in comparison to the unsettling experience of Galás’s Q&A. Mostly inspired by the previously shown film, topics included government-sanctioned torture of mental patients, retirement homes, the EU, one-dimensional music, and the music industry. Galás somehow came across simultaneously as an alien being – obscure, abstract and incomprehensible – yet also sharp, witty, and intimidating for the forthrightness of her informed views. The most memorable moment was Galás’s impromptu performance of a multiphonic vocal technique – piercing the hall with her shocking banshee wail – which, in an intimate context, seemed to impress and startle even this crowd, clearly no stranger to musical extremes.

There is of course so much more I could mention. You’ll find more images on the Weird Metal Blog Facebook page. But – until it’s time to cash in for those Roadburn beer tokens again next year – I’ve no doubt that the rapidly-approaching Acherontic Arts festival just outside Düsseldorf will provide plenty more Weird Metal opportunities in the mean time.

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