Festival Review | ArcTanGent 2017

By Sam Lawson

After quite some time I finally sourced a press pass for ArcTanGent Festival, an event I have wanted to go to for quite some time now. Every year the lineup always features about 6 or 7 bands that are on my ever growing list of must-see artists and the 5th installment of the festival this year, was no exception.

Of course the festival also supports a lot of underground and unsigned bands and the Thursday plays host to a great deal of bands from around the world but primarily the country/region that the organisers evidently have a great deal of faith in, the same faith they instill in their audience to give everything a chance and enter all performances with an open mind, which the ArcTanGent audience certainly does.

Similarly to my UK Tech-Metal Festival 2017 review, I intend to create a top 5 list of my favourite performances. I also interviewed James Monteith of TesseracT for the second time this year and that will be available shortly after this article goes public, he had lots to say regarding new music and the recent US tour with Megadeth and other things he and I touched on earlier this year in April in our first recorded discussion which can be found here.

Just before we get into acts I should talk about the festival itself as an environment and alike, I know that a lot of our South West readers especially the lower south you travel would have never heard of ATG Festival, along with several other independent and otherwise niche events similar to this one, as a lot of marketing isn’t targeted to people in Cornwall. All of my “metalhead” friends in Cornwall either go to Download to see Slipknot (again) or Boardmasters because it’s the only thing within kicking distance that MIGHT feature one or two worthwhile artists but generally, doesn’t. (My opinions don’t represent that of Clunk! Magazine’s, obviously).

ArcTanGent has a pretty nifty layout, I didn’t once head over to the Bixler stage or the public camping area so can’t comment on those but I think that the organisation of the festival is evidently very precariously thought out and executed.

The general atmosphere is pretty great, I didn’t do much in the way of socialising beyond speaking to my friends from the UKTM circuit and other various cohorts that I ran into across the weekend but everyone I saw was having a nice time and enjoying themselves and the great music on offer. I appreciate that mud and festivals go hand in hand but that doesn’t make me enjoy it any more. The weather was pretty abysmal start to finish and I 100% think that ATG could benefit from laying down some plywood boards and whatnot on top of the really deep muddy areas which serves as exits and entrances for punters and staff. Just my two cents as someone who absolutely refuses to wear Wellington Boots now and fucking forever, so it’s probably just me being a bitch.

Live sound was iffy from time to time, for example Thenumbertwelvelookslikeyou were a band I wanted to see but I absolutely could not handle how dire the sound quality was. I think there were a lot of sound quality issue on the same stage throughout the weekend, SikTh had a similar problem with levelling but all the main stage bands sounded incredible, depending on where you were stood at least.

Anyway enough about that, onto the top 5 performances of the weekend!

5 – Heck

Prior to this festival, I had Heck confused with The Hell who I have zero interest in musically or otherwise whatsoever, then I realised I was being a dumbass and that they’re a very different band altogether. Not one I had ever listened to on record I don’t think but upon arrival and a few days prior I had heard that the band had the irresistible quality in their live performance I just can’t say no to in that they were supposedly very lively, very memorable and VERY dangerous. I’ve been on a bit of a kick for bands like this recently for some reason. Dillinger, BEAR, The Colour Line and so on. I’m seeing Every Time I Die in November so, that’s going to be a big one but for now Heck were the next band on the list. So naturally I waited throughout the entirety of their soundcheck so I could get the best view of the performance. The band took to the stage holding hands with one another and taking a bow for the crowd, what I have failed to mention this far is that this performance would be Heck’s last ever. A lot of very passionate people were in the audience eagerly anticipating the carnage to ensue with heavy hearts. There’s a trend of bands similar to this all splitting up as well, I don’t know what’s going on.

The 4 piece managed to tear everything to pieces and rebuild it over and over again several times in one performance. Within the first 30 seconds of music, guitarists Jonny and Matt had both dived from the stage straight into the barrier the front row of chaos thirsty fans were clinging onto desperately as the whirring and spinning of circle pits and hardcore dancing erupted behind them. The band were abandoning their instruments and crowd surfing almost immediately without any concern for their own health whatsoever. The very large and precariously unstable speaker stacks either side of the stage found themselves being used as podiums for the band to stand on and everyone in the room felt the same fear and excitement at the thought that perhaps Jonny would dive from the 20+ foot high speaker into the audience. The band pulled up the carpet from the stage and threw it into the audience and went on what could only be referred to as a flying carpet ride throughout the remainder of the last song. If seeing any other heavy metal/hardcore band live was like a grenade going off, Heck was like napalm.

Luckily, the absolutely dire sound quality that I was subjected to and the loudest vocal levelling you could ever imagine amidst a plethora of technical difficulties on and off stage was of course overshadowed by the heart racing final performance these 4, clearly very close friends and band of lunatics delivered like a letter bomb.

Rest In Peace, Heck.

4 – Converge

I will admit, originally VOLA were my number 4. A big part of the delay for this article being released was me debating between to two relentlessly. In the end, I had to go with Friday night’s headliners, Converge.

And for good reason too, this was a historic moment for quite a lot of people I think. Not only was ArcTanGent the band’s only UK appearance of 2017, it was the first time they had played this country since very early 2016 and the year before that they played a total of 2 shows in the country, it’s evident that the band don’t stay here very long when they visit. So for the ATG crowd, this was a special occasion and one to jot down in the calendar. Alongside Explosions In The Sky headlining the following night, it was evident that ArcTanGent had thought outside of the box and went for headliners that instead of being bands with current or active album/PR campaigns or “hype” surrounding them, bands that they knew the audience wanted but probably thought they would never get, so in short, ArcTanGent fucking delivered, much like a postman with tourettes (shout out to The Inbetweeners for that one).

Converge are a band that i’ve always liked but never obsessed over, their latest record ‘All We Love, We Leave Behind’ was the first thing I had properly listened to by the band back in 2012 and it was immediately enthralling and had plenty of memorable moments throughout, namely the title track which i’m infinitely glad was played live on this occasion, however the more I delved into the band’s discography at that time, nothing was clicking or registering with me for some reason. At the time I don’t think I was ready for band of that nature, back in 2012 I would have just been leaving school and Metallica, Megadeth and Pantera were the absolute extent of what I listened to and enjoyed for a little while there. If you’re a metal fan, you get it. As I got slightly older of course, more extreme/experimental bands started rising to the surface of my interests and Converge came along for the ride, every time I have ever listened to the band’s recordings however, I always knew that i’d have to see it live to really absorb the impact of these compositions.

Converge close.jpgBetween the pouring rain, impossible-to-walk-in-whilst-wearing-Nikes mud and one of the rowdier crowds I had seen at the festival, Converge were truly a sight to behold. Their patented blend of hardcore punk vocals, reminiscent of Rollins or MacKaye combined with the Mastodon style riffing and some of the most truly crushing and exhilarating drumming you will ever witness, was something that had time standing still. Yet all too ironically, the band’s set felt like it flew by and despite my exhaustion I could have stayed there and watched another hour. The band were so full of life and sincerity, the crowd too. I’m very blessed that I was able to see their only UK show of the year, it was spectacular.

3 – TesseracT

This is my second time seeing TesseracT perform live, i’ve been a fan for many years and they’ve never put out any music I dislike, I can generally find something to enjoy in every single song from every single album, which can’t be said about a lot of artists. Generally speaking, these guys are at the forefront of this not-so-new-anymore-but-still-modern wave of bands who for the longest time were referred to as “djent” but I think all the bands that really mattered in the midst of that movement just ended up being classed as progressive metal and that was that. One things that links a lot of these bands together however is streamlining their live performances in terms of technology. So instead of a Marshall amplifier head and cabinet combined with a big board of effects pedals, mostly these groups use modelling amps and rack units, which recreate all of those sounds you get from the bigger, harder-to-lug-around rigs. Over time of course, these more digital sounding amplification options began becoming a sonic staple and trademark rather than just a tool for efficiency. Suffice it to say, i’m not a huge fan of the mostly digital sound, in fact you could even go as far as to say, I hate it.

I think TesseracT definitely stand apart from their contemporaries however, whilst the guitar tones weren’t particularly pleasing on my ears this particular day, the basssounded really amazing, as did the drums. There were similar qualms with the performance that I picked up on in Plymouth earlier this year at their headline show in April. In that, Dan Tompkins was presumably preserving his voice as he always does and was substituting certain, potentially more difficult/risky vocals parts for easier-to-sing lines so that he could do all of the songs justice and not blow his voice out early on or something similar. However, there are still those moments in a TesseracT set, for example that passage in the song ‘Pheonix’ where Dan sings in that whistle register made famous by Mariah Carey, yeah.. That does something to you alright.

It was moments such as that one that made this performance special. Along with a long list of other contributing factors including a greatly enthusiastic and (perhaps due to the time of day) mostly sober and well behaved audience, the fact that the band just seemed to be really enjoying their first time at ArcTanGent as well as me finally having an opportunity to just sing along with all the songs the band on the stage were playing and be a fan rather than a journalist for just half an hour.

An apt word to describe TesseracT in a live setting is; powerful. Not a contrived form of power that is merely fabricated or emulated just by having loud guitars or hard hitting drums, but their compositional talent really does translate to the stage impeccably well and I would be surprised if anyone in that audience who saw their performance doesn’t also have them in their top 5 best ATG sets of 2017.

2 – Explosions In The Sky

Arguably, this could have been number one if there weren’t some extremely unique circumstances preventing that from being the case. As my friend Gareth aptly said to me at ATG this year whilst we were waiting for fellow main-stagers Boris to play – “Explosions In The Sky are one of those bands”. Amidst circles of music obsessives, explorative musicians and acid casuals/casualties, EITS are an announcement that when made by ArcTanGent, the resonant shockwaves were felt and a nationwide mutual excitement was beginning to fester in anticipation for what was arguably the coolest headliner booked for a festival in the UK this year, amongst real-heads anyway.

A band I had listened to on numerous occasions, deeply respected and alongside artists such as Sigur Ros, Bon Iver, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and others, I had wanted to see perform live for quite a while. Groups like these really focus on the drama of music and the theatrical elements that can be weaved into and exploited during the composition of a piece. More like orchestras than rock bands, the focus is on: propulsion, tension, restraint, patience and above all, explosion. As truly embarrassing as it might be to let these words leave my keyboard, Explosions In The Sky are a band whose name describes their sound perfectly.

There were lots of highlights throughout this set, it was the last day of the festival and my entire body was sore and I just wanted to go home and go to sleep but I knew that I could NOT miss this. Guitarist/keyboardist Munaf Rayani addressed the crowd twice the entire show, once at the start in which he thanks everyone for coming and for sticking around despite the rain and mud to watch his “weird band” followed by “We’re called Explosions In The Sky and we’re from Texas, let’s go” and then at the end of the set it was just more thanks and appreciation for the truly wonderful audience who deserved every bit of credit the band gave them. What followed this address was a truly unforgettable sonic rush of water enveloping everyone and leaving no one to sink and everyone to float. The slow motion crowd surfing of which all of about 3 people total took part in was a particularly light hearted and memorable moment, a total contrast to Friday’s headliners Converge’s set, of course.

During ‘Your Hand In Mine’, totally against my will I started to conjure images that were probably better left in the recesses of my memory. I was recently advised to not include personal anecdotes in my writing because no one would care but, I don’t really give a shit so here goes. Amidst the purple lights, and an audience where couples held one another close and the band all swayed left to right solemnly there was a playful sorrow that moved it’s way through the mass of observers in the mud. There wasn’t a dry eye under the Arc for these 7 or so minutes, the paramedic team stood directly opposite me behind the barrier being the only exception, they probably thought I was a bit fucked in retrospect. I stood there and bawled my eyes out, to the point where tears had filled my eyes so much so that every shape and colour just became a hexagonal mesh of vibrancy and nonsensical, dizzying spectrums of light. For no clear reason, the images of my elderly grandfather passing away and leaving my grandmother in their family home on her own, still continuing their routine by herself for some reason creeped into my mind. I should clarify, he isn’t dead but it’s a moment that for a long list of reasons, I desperately try to avoid thinking about but I couldn’t stop myself, I don’t resent the band for creating this immeasurably moving piece. On the contrary, it was good to finally tackle such complex emotions all in one go, with the aid of this incomparably beautiful music, it felt like I sunk very low and then by the end rose very high and tears of crushing sorrow had turned to warm joy.

Another moment that will stick with me was the young gentleman who valiantly began climbing the supporting beam in the middle of the Arc, security were sent into a frenzy as you would imagine but he kept climbing. The whole audience of course, expected him to jump. I think he just wanted a better view, none of the band saw as they were all facing away but he didn’t seem to mind. He stayed up there for about 3 or 4 minutes. Though I can guarantee that I wouldn’t have had the spine myself to do it, I was hoping he would just spread his arms wide and fall backwards, eyes closed, into the sea of people beneath him, all eagerly awaiting the drop, catching him and surfing him to the barrier security. Alas, he didn’t let go, he climbed down and was escorted away but nethertheless the image of him up there smiling, clinging on and listening to the band is burnt into my memory now and hopefully, forever.

I urge anyone who is ever awarded the opportunity to go and watch this band perform life to do so, this was a truly transcendent and, forgive me, magical experience start to finish. Be prepared to feel everything, all at once but by the end of it, you’ll be glad you did.

1 – TTNG (AKA This Town Needs Guns)

Now onto the aforementioned extenuating circumstances that lead to Explosions In The Sky being my number two instead. TTNG are a band that i’ve been listening to for many years quite avidly, I was never really all that comfortable with the departure of Stuart Smith (vocals/rhythm guitar) who performed with the band on their debut and sophomore releases before being replaced by Henry ‘Hank’ Tremain, who also took over bass duties as well as vocals and due to his 6 string baritone guitar, the guy basically covers all of the ground left exposed by Stu and former bassist Jamie Cooper after the band seemed to be on very uncertain ground. Guitarist Tim Collis is the only original member of the band left and whilst it’s definitely his playing and writing that has held the band together over the last 13 years or so since their formation, I was always drawn to Smith’s lyricism and vocals the most. It was interesting to me to hear these British guys playing this music that struck me as being really American and all the other big bands playing this math rock style were generally situated in the USA.

After the band’s most notable album ‘Animals’ (their last with Stuart Smith in the band), TTNG went on to release two more albums as a 3 piece band, with Tim’s brother Chris taking over drum duties and I slowly started to lose a lot of interest in the group’s output due to this strange loyalty I had developed for Stuart’s vocals and writing. However, me losing interest wasn’t in anyway to imply that the band had become in anyway worse or less capable of writing amazing music, arguably their songwriting vastly improved somewhat in fact but something just wasn’t right to my ears. However, this didn’t mean I didn’t want to see the band live, I knew that I would still get to hear some of my favourite songs by this band I had been consistently listening to for years, it just wouldn’t be the same person singing them, I could swallow that pill given the circumstances. However I certainly wasn’t expecting the band to take my number one spot.

Suffice it to say, the band were absolutely infallible. Hank’s vocals almost sound more like Stuart’s vocals than Stuart’s, during all of those older songs. The sound was pristine as well, everything was so clear and easily dissectable and the crowd were clearly made up mostly of huge TTNG fans who sang almost every word start to finish. All of the band’s newer songs from their latest release ‘Disappointment Island’ were so entertaining and full of cliffhanging moments, peaks and slopes and just a general excitement throughout. Some of the compositional tricks pulled off in some of the band’s newer material are seriously impressive and much to my delight, colourfully and tastefully executed. When you’re writing mathematical and/or otherwise quite complicated music, it’s easy to get lost in the intricacies and lose the actual song itself but TTNG have always been and prove to still be at the forefront of the bands that really make it work.

However the band had a surprise in store that I didn’t see coming, I don’t think anyone did really. Hank addressed the crowd and said that the band we’re about to play a “very old song” and that a good friend was going to join them to help them sing it. Out walks Stuart Smith, the very same. I was convinced that I would never see TTNG live with him singing and the first time I go to watch them, there he was. Furthermore, Stuart announced that the band are intending to do a 10 year reunion tour for ‘Animals’ next year, the excitement was fucking real, let me tell you. They proceeded to play “Do You Wanna Come Back To My Room And Listen To Some Belle And Sebastian?” and the energy on stage felt so tangible, it was wonderful to see.

All in all, this set was a total live music highlight for me generally speaking. I had so much fun and I got to see something that I was convinced I never would and it was wonderful. As well as giving me a lot to reminisce about, plenty to enjoy in the moment this performance also gave me a vast amount to look forward to in the future and that isn’t something that can be said about a great deal of live shows.

Long live TTNG!

So there you have it, ArcTanGent 2017. I hope I am invited back next year because I really did have a wonderful time. I didn’t experience the silent disco but I absolutely commend any festival who dedicate an entire stage as well as a channel for their silent disco to The Mars Volta and vocalist Cedric Bixler Zavala and furthermore, though I didn’t do much in the way of socialising I didn’t meet any real assholes (except the one drunk guy who told me he loved holidaying in Cornwall who tried to touch my friend up somewhat, he can go play in traffic) and though the weather was truly dire and my generally high levels of misery and childishness didn’t tolerate the mud situation very highly, I actually think this was one of the highlights of my year. Shouts to the other bands that caught my attention also including: Totorro, Vasuveda, VOLA, Boris (my lord..) to name a few and of course a massive thank you to the wonderful, hardworking people of ArcTanGent Festival for their contribution to the ever expanding weird and wonderful world of outsider music and art.