Words: Sam Lawson | Photos: Lara Hempsall
It’s no secret to anyone that knows me that i’m not the biggest fan of festivals, I likely said something similar to this in my article posted at around this time last year pertaining to UK Tech-Fest also. I find that a decent percentage of festival goers are usually pretty apathetic when it comes to the music and are mostly attending for the one or two radio singles that the headliner had during the early naughties and so they can have a weekend away from work taking drugs and having sex in a messy field. To me, that seems like a royal waste of time and energy. Are there no fields near your own house you can go to? Regardless, as someone who finds socialising incredibly exhausting at the best of times, the invitation to spend 4 days surrounded by thousands of people, the majority drunk or otherwise intoxicated, usually wouldn’t appeal to me, that being said; This is Techfest, this is different.
“Techfest is best fest!” after all. All of my friends from around the country and in many cases the world attend this festival every year, regardless of the line up. This idea that “Metal is a big family!” is instilled into us from constant Metallica VH1 documentaries and ‘Get Thrashed’ as budding heavy metal obsessives and it sounds fun and appealing for a while, the sad reality is if you live in a place like Cornwall, the metal “scene” is nothing but a cold, desolate place full of jaded, angry old (before their time) men and women who never made it because they fell into the belief that their band was the best post-blackened-melodeath metal band in the county and therefore, there was no need to progress further or play anywhere past the Tamar Bridge. I joined my first band when I was 14 and attending my first local metal show at the same age, I can count on one hand the amount of people I still have in my life from those early days because of their resounding positivity and work ethic, mostly. I spend at least the first few years of being a musician being told that I should stop, playing shows to mostly empty rooms polluted only by big, long haired, cargo short wearing men with their arms folded and a face that would lead you to believe their mother had just been shot in front of their eyes. So no, to me metal was NOT a family. Anyone with a Cannibal Corpse t shirt was probably going to be a dickhead if I tried talking to them and I STILL can’t shake the exact same fear every time I travel to play a show in the UK that no one will attend and that my music means nothing to anyone and that it’s all a failed venture at my expense for the amusement of others. However last year when my band were awarded the opportunity to play UK Tech Fest, my perspective changed massively. After 3 days in Newark, in the summer of 2016. I realised that metal can be a family but only if you’re at Techfest and then of course consequentially, those amazing friends and fans you make whilst you’re there are all spread throughout the UK, meaning that when you go and play their town or city, they’ll come and bring their friends and it makes every show to some extent feel like it was totally worth it. So before I get into reviewing bands I just want to emphatically and from the tallest rooftop til my lungs burst apart in my ribcage let the whole world know my unconditional, undying love for the greatest and happiest place on this earth. If you are ever invited to go to Techfest, don’t look at the line up, just go.
Anyway, business as usual. I’ve decided to just take a look at my top 5 acts of the weekend as well as other highlights. I was debating for a long time in what way I should approach this article and whether I should do interviews with bands or interviews with the members of the audience etc. but I came to the conclusion that I wanted to just enjoy the festival as authentically as I could and then look back retrospectively and write it down, so that’s my plan. In particular order, these are my top 5 acts of 2017!
5 – Maxi Curnow
As we’ll probably find with a good deal of these bands, i’m friends with a couple of the guys involved because that’s how this community generally seems to work but I intend to be as impartial and unbiased as I possibly can be, often met with some criticism of it’s own, I generally do put music before all else at my own peril and my journalism won’t be an exception.
Maxi and I met earlier this year at a Tech Fest All Dayer event in New Cross, London. My band were playing the after party and I guess he was just there to see friends and watch some bands. He ended up joining us for the ritualistic superjam that ourselves and Harrison (Novena) were putting together for the night, his guitar playing was out of this world. Not some crazy 8 finger tapping shredder by any means but soulful, intuitive and massively observant of the band around him. I was excited for his set at the main festival, for sure.
Maxi had Mike Malyan playing drums for him at this show, which when given the very large list of bands that Mike plays for probably shouldn’t have surprised me but given the very unique circumstances, as it always does, it did. I saw Mike at about 1pm in the afternoon or so upon arrival to the festival I believe and he was lying on the grass floor in what looked like crippling agony. I spoke to him briefly and he explained that he had sciatica in his back, whilst I know little to nothing about sciatica, I could tell that he was in tremendous amounts of pain. An hour or so later I was passing through the press room and he was sat with a MIDI keyboard, a laptop, Drewsif Stalin and Maxi himself. I hadn’t quite put 2 and 2 together yet at this point but I knew they were up to something!
Suffice it to say, Mike was in far too much pain to play drums for real, pressing down on the kick pedal over and over again of his kit would have just sent waves of discomfort through his body I am sure. He was playing the whole of Maxi’s set (and later, Novena’s) on a keyboard in which he had mapped all of his drum sounds to. Everyone at the side of the stage and in front of the stage also were in genuine awe at what they were seeing. This is a bloke who just won’t be stopped by anything, evidently. I won’t lie, it distracted a bit from the music at times in terms of where my focus was centered but having heard Maxi’s music prior to this I was somewhat familiar. The 3 piece band played with finesse and precision but above all, soul. Collective soul too! Maxi’s music is beyond the pale and can’t be compared to any other artist, if you haven’t heard it you NEED to hear it.
4 – Harbinger
Harbinger are arguably the band I have seen play live the most times in the last year or two above all else. A decent part of that is because I consider these guys close friends of mine but also because they crush it every time. They’re at a standard that most bands need to be striving for at all times. Their live sound is good, their chemistry is good, they’re improving with every show and they’re all young guys who have the backing of a record label, a great mind for marketing and merchandising and of course most crucially, great songwriting skills.
Given the amount of times i’ve seen the band, I decided that despite my journalistic instinct telling me otherwise, i’d watch from side stage. The sound isn’t nearly as clear as it would be out front but I was reeling from the total lack of sleep I had the night before but was determined to see these guys play. They played a very similar slot to what they had done one year previously but I think the crowd was bigger this time. The line up this year was more geared towards Harbinger’s sound generally so a lot of the audience were probably listening out for more death metal sounding groups.
I could tell that the boys were having some monitoring issues on stage but as always, they pushed through. Their stage presence could be likened to bassist’s Kris’ outfit choices in that they stand out, they’re very loud and people love what they’re seeing. All in all, Harbinger are top of their game and a class act, expect to hear more from them soon. They’ll be playing Plymouth whilst on tour with Loathe later this year on the 1st of September at The Underground, don’t miss it.
3 – BEAR
These guys are a band I had never heard of before but had been recommended to me by my trusted friends over at The Monolith magazine. They were billed to play the first after party slot on the Sunday of the festival so, everyone was starting to feel the effects of the days that had preceded them and we still had a few final acts to go before the festival was finished. One of these acts was “Slamtera” that I was lucky enough to be a part of, henceforth, I was waiting backstage during BEAR’s set preparing to go on stage, so I had the best view in the house of the absolute fucking carnage that was about to ensue.
I love all of the Tech Fest staff with all my heart, I really do. Simon, Amanda and Helen do a wonderful job every year and the stewards, security, sound/lighting engineers and stage managers work tirelessly to maintain a level of perfection that reverberates through the campsite amidst the post-set conversations permeating the showground HOWEVER with that said, I also really love bands that just destroy everything in their path. These guys, on top of having some of the most captivating and interesting sounding riffs and grooves of the weekend, pulled the stage apart (literally) and laid waste to all of their own equipment. The drums were broken apart to the degree that their drummer Serch was hammering his cymbal stands back into their original shape during Slamtera’s performance that shortly followed.
If you like chaotic and violent music that looks just how it sounds, BEAR are the band for you. I don’t know how often they tour the UK but when they do, they absolutely cannot be missed.
2 – Toska
Toska are a band made up of members of Dorje and also YouTube personalities and guitar/gear gurus Rabea Massaad, Ben Minal and Dave Hollingworth. I’ve been following these guys since around the time they brought out their debut EP ‘Ode To The Author’ and at one time I even tried out to be their vocalist, to no avail. In my defense, their music is very very complicated and not designed for a singer to write parts for because being honest, it’s interesting enough as it is instrumentally. Regardless, I have looked up to these guys for the better part of a year or so and I am definitely a fan. Them being booked for the festival was definitely something that sparked my interest.
Their set was easily the best sounding performance of the entire weekend, I think these guys have spent such inordinate amounts of time ensuring their amps, instruments and so on, sound as absolutely perfect as humanly possible before a sound engineer even gets involved so there’s no way it will ever come out as poorly mixed. I spent a good while after their set hanging out with the guys and talking about all manner of things and one thing Rabea mentioned was that because of the dynamic you’re working with in being a 3 piece band, you need to be able to match the intensity and presence of a band with a bigger ensemble and these guys hit the nail on the head.
Technically demanding music but centered entirely around feel and a chemistry these 3 guys have built up over the course of years and years of playing together. A lot of newer material was played and it definitely fills out the half an hour time slot but it was great hearing it this way before it is released to the general public online, a lot of it has stuck with me still so i’m excited to hear how it sounds when it comes out of the recording studio.
All in all, Toska are an instrumental band that keep you hooked from start to finish with a live sound that is above and beyond that of their contemporaries. The only other band i’ve seen who sounded this good were Snarky Puppy, who are a jazz group that don’t rely on big loud walls of noise or theatrics AND they weren’t playing inside of an entirely metal hangar like Toska were.
1 – The Colour Line
These guys were definitely on my list of bands I had to watch as I had been friends with guitarist Sam digitally speaking anyway, for a little while by this point and it was their last show also. I had heard plenty about the band’s reputation as performers and I was excited to say the least.
They were top of my must watch list and absolutely deserved to be. I went from not knowing what any of the other band members even looked like and having only heard their music on very few occasions to being directly amidst the carnage, revelling in every second of what was one of the most visceral and memorable moment of the entire weekend for me, hands down.
This is the only set that I ran to make sure I caught, as I came in the first song was starting and vocalist Sam Rudderforth had a particular glint in his eye that indicated to me that things weren’t going to be entirely in appliance with health and safety regulations. It had been circulating throughout the campsite and the press area that the band were required to sign a stack of disclaimer forms immediately upon arrival promising not to destroy anything, hurt anyone or incite a riot. I think everyone who heard this information throughout the course of the festival just sort of nodded and thought “that’s nice” but knew all along that it was probably a bit of a pipe dream.
With that said, the band didn’t quite incite a riot nor did anything burn down and arguably, BEAR’s after party set on the Sunday caused more in the way of physical damage to property and equipment however, there was just a lethal energy in The Colour Line’s set that wasn’t rivalled whatsoever by anyone else. Sam spent less time on stage than is expected of most singers, he pretty much immediately dove straight amidst the middle of the pit, forming a circle of somewhat trepidatious and uncertain audience members around him.
In terms of musical performance, the boys were obviously no strangers to their material this late into the game, they were so comfortable with these songs that it allowed for all the stage antics but the songs have always carried a weight to them, true compositional value and that was evidenced by a decent number of audience members singing/shouting along to the words and the entire room, comprised of The Colour Line fans, new and old, all felt the heaviness of the situation and the realisation that unless they could make it to Hull on the 5th of August, they were never going to see these 4 guys play a gig together again.
After the last song, the crowd demanded one more. A second stage headliner or performer, for that matter, hasn’t been asked to encore in the festival’s history, I believe. It was at this moment a lot of the guys in the staff team were looking a little torn between giving the audience what they wanted and keeping the schedule running smoothly. As you would imagine, the band played one more song and it was no holds barred, as you would expect. A true goodbye from a band that clearly meant a lot to this scene and to their audience.
Being in the middle of the pit and one of the audience members actively involved in helping the crowd surfers and holding Rudderforth up by his legs as he interacted with the fans, felt like I had finally made up for watching The Dillinger Escape Plan from the balcony this past January when I should have been in the middle of the chaos and human debris instead.
The Colour Line aren’t just in my top 5 performances from Tech Fest, or even my top 5 performances of 2017, these guys are in my top 5 performances ever.
R.I.P The Colour Line
Honourable Mentions/Other Highlights
As expected, there were a lot more amazing things that took place over the course of the 4 days than just the aforementioned band’s performances however, I wanted to keep it comprehensive as I knew I would go on a tangent about each band anyway. Here is a very brief (he says) list of other bands who I thought were great!
Musica Masonica – My good friend and frequent cohort/collaborator Gareth Mason (formerly of Slice The Cake) was taking the Double Slit stage during the Thursday after party and by this point I was already knackered so I just sat on a bench at the back of the hangar and absorbed this sonic bath of multiple textures and colour palette mashing that the ever-explorative duo that are Gareth and Sol could probably go as far as to patent if they so chose.
Valis Ablaze – My second time seeing these boys was better than the first, as I got to actually watch the entire set whereas as last time I was busy for the first half. They band played well, the audience loved it also. It was evident that Phil’s voice was hurting or that he was feeling perhaps a bit ropey from the night before but, i’d like to think only the people in the crowd who also sing in bands would be able to tell that because they guys pulled off a very professional set.
Drewsif Stalin’s Musical Endeavours – I think most people at Tech Fest will agree that Drew and his band of wonderful, whacky character such as vocalist Lee Mintz made up a huge part of the entertainment taking place throughout the festival both on and off stage. Lee’s voice had me totally dumbfounded as well as his wonderfully American stage presence. Drew’s energy was totally infectious also, I got to hang with him for a few hours in the early hour of Sunday morning and he struck me as a really cool person as well as a top class musician, of course.
Altostratus – I didn’t catch their entire set but it was great seeing Jordan Harris (guitar) playing on stage after being a fan of his work on YouTube for such a long time now, they guys are very interesting musicians indeed but I think there’s room for a singer, personally.
Textures – I discovered Textures for the first time last year at Tech-Fest, on the Sunday. I loved what I heard. This year the band would have made it into my top 5, had their setlist not been basically a complete repeat of the year before, in their defense with them breaking up I don’t know what other option they really had and they were a last minute addition to the line up due to The Faceless (of course) bailing on the festival. I stood in the same place I stood last year, with my eyes closed swaying back and forth as the piano ballad ‘Zman’ flooded the hangar and it was a peaceful moment. Shouts to my friend Blue for her Flamingo antics as well!
Hypophora – My wonderful friends in Hypophora were on top form tonight. I always like watching them play live and seeing them with James (percussion/saxophone in one of my bands and drums in the other) playing drums was refreshing. This was the best set I had ever seen them play up to this point. New songs sounded exciting and well thought out, stage presence wasn’t awkward and disjointed like it had been in the past and their rhythm section was in the very capable hands of a great drummer, at last. I’ve worked with Karum (guitar/backing vocals) for a long time now and I should know better but i’m always in awe at his overwhelmingly capability as a musician across a spectrum of instruments and style. This guy is, hands down, a tier one musician and i’m proud to have him as a band mate and friend.
MeYou – The strictly improvised black jazz stylings straight from the deepest recesses of Tom Deadson’s imagination with his band of similarly obscure and like-minded brothers amongst him, took the stage just after Hypophora. The idea was that anyone could come up and improvise and play a myriad of instruments provided. Ben (keyboards) was adorned in a bin bag and empty bread packet for a hat.. Obviously. I got up myself and tried my hand at the violin, keyboards and some girly screamed vocals in an attempt to conjure my finest Barrett-Era Pink Floyd, Roger Waters impression. A vast majority of the audience had absolute ZERO idea what was going on whatsoever, it was great fun.
Superjam – The superjam is something I hold dear to my heart and typically at other Tech-Fest related events, usually taking place in London, i’m awarded the opportunity to host/MC the superjams that take place at the after parties or so on. This time however, Harrison ‘Wonky’ White (Novena), was in charge.. And thank god for that. The more structured and organised vibe of this year’s superjam was welcomed by most but there were some who felt it needed to be more free and based around improvisation, whereas Harrison’s vision was to have a house band supply backing whilst everyone took turns improvising their solos. Myself and good friend Annina were invited to sign ‘Comfortably Numb’ for about half an hour, having a room full of people singing the chorus of that song back to me is something that’ll stick with me for a very long time. Shout outs as always to Rania for her astounding array of musical talent and infectiously energetic stage presence, as well as Dave Mac (The Sun Explodes) for his recent nuptials, for which Rania arranged a card to be signed by those closest to him at the festival. Congrats Dave!
Northlane – I was side stage with my good friend Stuart Hunter for pretty much all of Northlane’s set, a band that never resonated with me whatsoever until the release of their latest album which I thought was a great work of art. The band’s performance was impeccable, great stage presence and the vocals, my god the vocals. These guys were highly anticipated and evidently a fan favourite all round by the end of the weekend, such wonderfully nice people also, which is always nice.
Slamtera – The wonderful lads in Harbinger took to the stage one last time at the Sunday after party for a Pantera cover set, with a slightly heavier twist (well, until me and Meyrick from Exist Immortal came on stage and starting singing cleanly). This was something that I had been waiting for since I arrived, I’ve wanted to sing Pantera songs for an audience of people since I was about 14 years old. Every song saw one or two different vocalists from various bands in the scene hopping on stage to take on the task of replicating the legendary vocals of Phil Anselmo. Jack Kinsey is one person who stands out as being particularly memorable in his delivery, everyone in the room acknowledged that they probably haven’t heard and likely won’t hear vocals THAT heavy for a very, very long time. I finally, after 21 years, went crowd surfing just after the closing song of the set; Cowboys From Hell, which was an absolute life highlight, let alone festival highlight. This was and still is the most fun i’ve ever had on stage in my entire life and i’m never going to forget it!
Other Highlights! – As always, I got to meet some truly wonderful people and see lots of old friends. It was great being part of the press team and meeting so many wonderful people. Thanks to Rhys Haberfield for letting me fumble around on his laptop in a dizzying array of Apple Mac induced confusion (I’m PC sorry), thanks to Emma Stone and Rachael Griffiths for providing me with some of the most wonderful exchanges of accents i’ve ever heard, Welsh and Northern, my tiny Southern brain couldn’t handle it. The boys from The Colour Line for easily providing me with some of the funniest moments of the festival, namely Sam Arundell. Kirsten Harwood for not totally kicking my ass when she realised I was using the locked off shows specifically for the headlining artists, whoops. Ash Diaphragm for having an exchange of words at the press area gate with me for half an hour or so, clearing some air and getting to know one another beyond the internet. My wonderful friends from all over the world who travelled so far to be there including Constantijn De Jonge who is always on top journalistic form and always eager to discuss the intricacies of a band’s performance with me, keeping my mind awake and agile (sort of), same applies to Simon Clark of The Monolith, of course. My wonderful friend Tom Quigley for providing me with great conversation and a good set of laughs across the weekend also. Karum and Lara for taking such wonderful photographs and assisting me throughout the process. Dave Mac for existing of course and lastly..
A sincere thank you from me (and arguably, everyone else) to Simon Garrod and his time. The hard work put into this festival by everyone but of course namely Simon, Amanda and Helen is admirable beyond comprehension and words. This place is home. I never thought a showground in fucking Newark, would feel like home, but it does. I am generally one of the more downright miserable bastards you’re likely to meet and I say that with no implied pretense, it’s just factual by this point but being at Tech Fest, most people there probably assume i’m a generally happy and upbeat sort of person because I can’t help but be that way when i’m there, I don’t know anyone that can.
Tech Fest is my favourite place on earth, Tech Fest is best fest.
See you all next year!