It was utter madness, but I suppose that’s to be expected. At this point, that’s part of what makes Roadburn the festival it is and has become. And on the day that 2012 kicked off and it was announced that Electric Wizard will curate 2013 and that Godflesh will play Pure in its entirety, I’ll say this already feels like the most crowded edition I’ve ever been to, though they’ve all been sold out. The lesson of 2012 is “get there early,” folks, because if you wait, you’re screwed. If there’s a band on stage, the room is full. Hell, even half the time bands aren’t on stage, it’s still full of people either waiting for who’s on next or still glowing after what they’ve just seen. Both the 013 and Het Patronaat were packed from the time I walked to the time I walked out. As I said: Madness.
True, The Icarus Line technically were the first band to go on, but it was d.USK doing their set of d.ISEMBOW LMENT material on the main stage that really got Roadburn started, and in telling fashion. The semi-reunited Australian outfit straddled the line between death/doom and black metal and seemed to relish in playing the one side off the other. They were oppressively dark, which is no small feat for the middle of the afternoon, and in that they were doing something special (the d.ISEMBOWELMENT set), were from a long way away, and made it hard to classify their sound, they were the perfect selection for a fest opener, because that’s exactly what this is: Bands from all over the world in a one of a kind gathering that’s not in the slightest bit limited by genre. I watched Ulver do a set of obscure ’60s psychedelic covers tonight. These things simply don’t happen anywhere else.
However, because there’s so much of it happening — at any given moment, all three stages of the 013 and the stage at Het Patronaat could and probably do have someone on them — Roadburn also requires hard choices be made. I left d.USK/d.ISEMBOWELMENT to go next door into the Green Room and catch the start of Horisont‘s set, and it was the first of several hard choices on the day. The Green Room being the midsized spot (with Stage01 the smallest; I tried twice to get in today, for Year of the Goat and La Otracina, and no luck), it filled up quick with people eager for Horisont‘s take on the current Swedish retro sound. Someone standing next to me at the front of the stage was telling his buddy, “Yeah man, if you like Graveyard, you’ll like these guys.”
And it’s true. That’s pretty much what Horisont have going on, sound-wise, but I’m not about to start complaining about that. I’ve been through their new album, Second Assault, a couple times in advance of a review, and after seeing them live, I get it a little more. Yeah, they’re in the vein of Graveyard, but they’re not quite as boogie rock as Graveyard can be sometimes. If you’re looking for a retro Swedish comparison point, Burning Saviours might work, but at that point, you’re really nitpicking. As the room filled up (and filled up, and filled up, and so on), it also got warmed with each body, so I fought my way out of the crowd — not easy — and made my first attempt to get to Stage01, to check out Year of the Goat, but it was too packed to even get close to the door, let alone through it.
I’m no stranger to watching sets through the door at Roadburn. I saw some of Quest for Fire that way last year and wound up staying put to see a bit of La Otracina‘s free jazz freakout psych-prog this evening, but it’s not a long-term solution. Watching a band through the door, I don’t think I could honestly feel like I’d seen them. You want to at least be in the room. I can catch La Otracina in Brooklyn easily enough, since that’s where they’re from, but when it came to watching Sigiriya tonight at 00.00, I knew there was no way it would work out, and that was a bummer, since what I saw of them at Desertfest was fantastic. Nevertheless, one keeps moving. I made my way over to Het Patronaat for the first time after not getting to see Year of the Goat (still bought their record, since I liked what I heard through the doorway), and caught a couple minutes of Virus, whose dramatic experimental metal seemed to relish its own inaccessibility.
One thing Het Patronaat has over the Midi Theatre, which was Roadburn‘s initial “fourth stage” — i.e., the other large venue to complement the main stage — is that it’s gorgeous. Midi Theatre wasn’t ugly by any stretch, but it was a pretty normal theater-type venue. Het Patronaat is a converted church. It has stained glass windows (behind a protective plane, of course), and a high angular vault in its ceiling with big wood rafters that really provided atmosphere for the bands who played there. I think it’s smaller than the Midi Theatre was, but there’s also a room downstairs where bands set up their merch, and beer and food were sold. A little getaway spot, I guess, if you need to just chill for a while and drink a beer. Not a bad idea, but I didn’t really have time. Agalloch were set to hit the main stage at 17.15, and I knew that if I wanted to be there, I wanted to be there well before they went on.
I’ve been looking for an excuse to like Agalloch for a while now. The vehemence and consistency with which they’re recommended to me is nigh on overwhelming. It’s not just, “Oh, you should check this out, it’s pretty cool.” It’s, “Oh my god, you have to hear this band right now.” I’ve given their records a shot, and I even bought their The White EP, to hear if maybe them doing something different would sit any better. As turtlenecked guitarist/vocalist John Haughm set mini-cauldrons of incense on blocks made of tree trunks at the front of the stage, which also just happened to be eye level for the photo pit, I did not find my excuse to become a fan of the band. I can still smell that shit. So much for daytwoing it in my Saint Vitus shirt tomorrow. I’m starting to run out of clothes.
Once they got going, they were as I’ve always found them to be: an American band doing a decent job at playing indulgent European-style artsy black metal. I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it. I smelled it for a while and then I went back to the Green Room for Swedish cult doomers Saturnalia Temple, who are a bit more my speed, literally and figuratively. Michael Gira from Swans was doing a solo set at Het Patronaat, which would’ve been awesome to see, but like I say, tough decisions have to be made every year, and since I dug the hell out of Saturnalia Temple‘s Aion of Drakon after buying it last Black Friday in Connecticut, I took the chance to see them as something special I’d probably only get to do at Roadburn. So off I went.
Saturnalia Temple were low end in extremis — a brutal wash of tone that vibrated the front of the stage as I stood there. Big, big riffs. I couldn’t really hear the vocals from where I was standing, but they were relatively sparse anyway for the first couple songs. Basically, Saturnalia Temple were throwing down a gauntlet of heft, daring the rest of the Roadburn lineup to match what they had to offer. Even if you take away the Lovecraftian thematics and the crushing grooves of the riffs themselves, the sheer force with which they were delivered was an act of physical violence. I knew Om was getting ready to go on the main stage, so I once more pushed my way out of the Green Room — much to the delight of my fellow 013 patrons — and made sure I was there for the start of the trio’s set.
That’s right, the trio. I don’t know what the official status of Robert A. Lowe (aka Lichens and not to be confused with Robert Lowe of Solitude Aeturnus/Candlemass fame) is, but the dude at this point is a big part of their sound, and they showed that right from the start with the new material they played off the upcoming Advaitic Songs, but even on “Meditation is the Practice of Death” from 2009′s God is Good (semi-review here), Lowe made his presence known, and throughout the set, whether it was beating himself with a tambourine in time to drummer Emil Amos‘ rhythm, adding synth, or playing guitar alongside Al Cisneros‘ bass, he’s more a member of the band now than he was when they started touring together and it was kind of a novelty thing. The novelty has worn off, and Om make for a pretty formidable trio, though part of me misses the sweet minimalism of their earlier work. Price of progress, I suppose.
When I left Om, I went and tried to watch La Otracina through the doorway of Stage01 and then went over to Het Patronaat, with the intent of getting there early enough to get a spot up front for Ancestors. That was my goal. Ancestors, whom I’ve missed more times than I really care to count (I think it’s twice, but that’s too many, anyhow), including just last weekend, were my one absolute must of the day. I figured I’d get there super early and work my way up as people were coming and going. Thing was, I was early enough that Red Fang was still on, and they killed the place. They’re tighter now even than they were at Metalliance last year, and songs from both their self-titled and last year’s Murder the Mountains (review here) incited whatever the burly beardo equivalent is to squeals of pleasure from the crowd. Up front, there was even good old fashioned heavy metal slam-dancing, which earned some hard stares from those who did not want to be involved.
You could hardly blame them, though — the dancers, that is — because Red Fang legitimately showed that they’ve stepped up their live show to match the profile of the touring they’ve done in the past. Whether it was bassist Aaron Beam‘s nailing the vocal shifts in “Human Herd” (not to mention his snazzy new haircut) or guitarist/vocalist Maurice Bryan Giles throwing a bit of pinache into the opening lead of “Throw Up,” or the whole band locking into the punky groove of “Hank is Dead,” they were excellent across the board and absolutely owned the stage. If they can bring that same kind of energy to their next record, then all that “the next Mastodon” buzz that’s been swirling around them these last few years won’t just be hyperbole. They sound like a band right on the cusp of something really special. And by “special,” I don’t mean “slow.”
Though if they wanted to play slow, that’d be alright too. I could live with that.
Sure enough, when they were finished, I proceeded to insert myself at the very front of the stage, just to the right side of the center, where I would stay for the duration of Ancestors‘ set. Normally I’d stay there for a few songs, then push back and let other people in — because I’m a big guy, it seems like the right thing to do — but once Ancestors got started, I knew there was no way. Anyone who’s bemoaned their progression since they released Neptune with Fire in 2008 as somehow forsaking heaviness has clearly never seen the band live. They were so. Fucking. Heavy. And so fucking loud, too. Bassist Nick Long had to keep chasing down his “Depth Charge” pedal because the stage was shaking so much from his playing that it was wandering off. At one point, I noticed guitarist/vocalist Jason Maranga‘s glass of tea was vibrating close to the end of the side of the stage and pointed it out to the dude working the board so it didn’t tip over and spill on the sound equipment. Drummer Daniel Pouliot — a relative newcomer to the band who nonetheless destroyed everything in his path — started out with one brick in front of his drums to hold them in place but wound up with three before they were finished. And as for organist/vocalist Jason Watkins, I’m surprised the keyboard didn’t come apart in his hands. Yes, they were that loud.
Not only that, but crazy melodic too. The highlight of the whole set was when they closed with the 19-minute finale of their new album, In Dreams and Time (review here). Maranga had said the entire band was sick — see, that’s why you pack a pharmacy — and his vocals toward the end were a bit rough, but everything else in “First Light” was spot on, and both musically and vocally, the melody was as powerful as the rumble in Long‘s bass. I recognized that opening riff immediately and had a Pavlovian-drooling-dog response at the treat I knew was coming. Sure enough, they made their way methodically through every part of the song, Maranga taking a long solo at Pouliot accented perfectly, building tension with each measure until finally the massive payoff arrived. It was unreal, and if I was going to see Ancestors at any point in their career, I’m glad it was now just for that. Just when you think he’s got nowhere else to go on the guitar, out comes the slide and the solo becomes a noise-fest working up past the neck; raw squibblies that would’ve made Agalloch jealous. Best part about it was there was feeling in every note, and you knew it just from watching. One hundred percent the highlight of my night, those dudes were. No doubt about it.
They ended with Maranga kicking aside his pedal board, putting his foot up on the monitor and headbanging at the front of the stage, until “First Light” crashed to its sudden finish. No shit, I’ve listened to the song three times through since coming back to the hotel to start this writeup. And it’s 19 minutes long! No regrets. I wasn’t exactly lacking in appreciation for what Ancestors do (click the review link if you don’t believe me), but this was something totally different. Unreal, how good they were. I was so glad to have finally seen them.
And really, that was the cap on my night. It came early, at least as regards the fact that there was still plenty of the lineup to go, but I knew Sigiriya wasn’t going to work out, Voivod played tonight after Ulver, but they’re also doing a set tomorrow at their curated Au-delà du Réel event in which they’re doing all of Dimension Hatröss, so I figured I wouldn’t want to miss that, and though I like Justin Broadrick‘s noisemaking as much as the next guy, I clearly had a bit of writing ahead of me. I went back to the 013 after Ancestors, carrying my melted brains in my photo bag, and planted myself in the photo pit in front of where it looked like would have a good view of Krystoffer Rygg‘s braided beard. As usual, my guess was meh.
I didn’t hear Ulver‘s 2011 album, Wars of the Roses — though I loved 2007′s Shadows of the Sun — but it didn’t matter anyway, because like I said way up at the top of this post, they were doing obscure psychedelic covers from the ’60s. An odd choice, maybe, but it sounded pretty good. One thing Ulver was more than anyone else today, though, was elaborate. Two guitars, bass, drums, a Rhodes, a mellotron, a Hammond, bongos, congas, timpani, shakers, a gong, and then an electronic setup on a table in front of Rygg that no one even wanted to turn on to soundcheck. It looked — in a word — expensive, and they went on 10 minutes late because it took so long to make sure everything was hooked in properly to the 013 P.A., but again, it’s hard to find any fault in Ulver‘s execution. They made it work, though they also took the songs and put them in a more Ulverian context, so that it was more of an interpretation of Jefferson Airplane than an outright cover.
But it was one more cool, weird happening that’s only going down at Roadburn, and those who got to see it — packed in as they were — were lucky, and I count myself lucky as well. I hit the Het Patronaat merch area one more time, saw Pouliot and told him the set was killer, and then resigned myself to coming back to the Mercure and getting to work.
Tomorrow Wino & Conny Ochs open Het Patronaat at 15.00, and I’m going to try again to get into Stage01 to see Conan before YOB do The Unreal Never Lived front to back and further insanity plays out. There are fewer bands I’m outright dying to check out tomorrow, so maybe I’ll get to stick around for some more full sets, but I wouldn’t put it past myself to be back and forth like I was today either. No rest for the restless.
Extra pics after the jump.
UlverAgalloch, Ancestors, d.USK, Desertfest & Roadburn Adventure 2012, Horisont, La Otracina, Om, Red Fang, Roadburn 2012, Saturnalia Temple, Ulver, Year of the Goat