Words: Sam Lawson | Header Image: Joe Singh Article images provided by ArcTanGent Festival
12 months have passed since I last stood in these fields somewhere near Bath, in the Southwest of England and had my fill of post rock, math rock, emo and other fringe styles of rock, metal and alternative music at one of the most accommodating and beautifully exclusive whilst all the while inclusive festivals in the country. After having attended bigger-sister festival 2000 Trees in Cheltenham earlier this Summer and witnessing a slightly more mainstream and palatable collection of music, it was time to dive into what was the undisputed best festival line up of the entire year.
Without further adieu here are the highlights and lowlights of my time at ArcTanGent Festival, in order of who I saw first to last. Enjoy!
Alpha Male Tea Party
Here’s a band that I hear talked about a lot, popular amongst the instrumental/math rock scenes on the UK. Hailing from Liverpool and carrying with them some incredibly muscular riffing and rhythm section coordination. The music seems to be a bit happy go lucky for me, in the same vein as thursday headliners And So I Watch You From Afar, who had left a sour taste in my mouth at 2000 Trees and definitely put me off similar sounding music for a little while. Overall though, an energetic and passionately played live set from an evidently humble and grateful band who are festival regulars here, a good way to start my weekend off.
Canadian math/emo rock band Gulfer were my first impression of the PX3 stage this year. Unfortunately, stage right guitar was entirely inaudible and the compositions seemed to lack hooks but the sincere and passionate vocals stylings of Vincent and David held the dynamic together throughout the set. This is a band to watch, most definitely.
To clear this up and begin as we intend to continue; Foxing were my number one highlight of the entire festival. I went into this line up expecting that to be the case and it was and I remain unsurprised. The band’s setlist was the best I could have asked for, a great blend of all 3 of the group’s acclaimed records including altered but emotive live renditions of the band’s two most popular tracks ‘The Medic’ and ‘Rory’. Amongst others, my main highlights of this performance was hearing vocalist Conor thank the audience for reminding him that all his work “wasn’t pointless”, and seeing himself and guitarist Eric Hudson dive straight into the crowd to play their instruments during the closing track of the set, as if to celebrate and say “finally, we fucking made it man.” A well deserved warm and vocal response from this British audience to end the band’s UK tour with Pianos Become The Teeth.
Pianos Become The Teeth
I think PBTT are perhaps a band who more accurately represent the genre of emo than most others with their dreary and dry chord passages met with purposeful and dramatic rhythm parts. The audience are half made up of people who are watching because they know that Foxing have just been on tour with these guys and half loyal fans who know every word. I’m somewhere in between the two but in absolutely no fit state thanks to exhaustion to be singing anything. The band’s energy on stage was very fluid within the confines the members had set up for themselves. A conscious decision was made to abandon or alter any material from the bands formative years where they were more closely associated with groups like La Dispute, Touché Amoré and so on. Also I want to note that David Haik’s performance behind the kit was something to behold, truly powerful yet incredibly cerebral drumming throughout, a real backbone to the melancholic post rock swelling coming from the guitars and bass. Definitely a band i’d like to see in a less drained physical and mental state.
After being under the impression that La Dispute were going to be playing the mainstage directly after Pianos, I ended up missing the first 2 songs of the band’s set unfortunately. Upon arriving at the Yohkai stage where the show was taking place, it became very clear that the band’s sound was suffering. The vocals were entirely inaudible, I dare to think that the set had been going on THIS long with the Front of House engineer noticing something was wrong, but this isn’t the first nor last example of the sound on this stage being plagued with problems which after so many examples can only be put at the feet of the engineers, rather than the artists. Ultimately however, about halfway in, the vocals were turned up and all was good again. Vocalist Jordan Dreyer makes a point of saying “A big stage gives the wrong impression. It makes it seem like this is about us when it’s not, it’s about all of us”. He then acts on this statement by getting in and amongst the audience, La Dispute are clearly a band who favour intimate shows and I see why. The drummer’s kit isn’t up on a riser and is floor level with the rest of the band, something I always like to see. The band close the show with perhaps obvious choices ‘Such Small Hands’ and the uncompromising story of lost youth and inner city struggle that is the band’s most memorable anthem, ‘King Park’. I find myself right in the centre of the pit, screaming as loudly as I can to compensate for missing the first few songs. This is incredibly emotional and cathartic music to witness live, I recommend it to everyone.
Tides From Nebula
Friday begins for me late in the afternoon with post rock group Tides From Nebula, a band I had been recommended by my friends who attended UK Tech-Metal Festival this year. Ultimately, the live sound is pretty great for these guys but the music fails to keep my interest. It’s impossible to ignore some of the very, very blatant Tool riffing that’s going on here. Also, the band are running backing tracks of ambient guitar noise that is totally unnecessary as on more than one occasion whilst this is happening, the guitarists aren’t playing additional parts and are just tuning. This is music that feels too regimented by the click track the group are relying on.
After a couple of different recommendations from trusted sources including one Rabea Massaad (Toska/Dorje), I checked out industrial/alternative rock group Black Futures. It’s no secret that amongst emerging music trends in the modern day, there is a huge emphasis on utilitarian two pieces playing aggro, pseudo-punk rock. I’m looking at you, Slaves. But there’s plenty of fusion music that’s coming about under this same premise, such as ho99o9, Death Grips and plenty of others. The two piece are adorned in these black almost military uniforms and MiB style shades, whilst a group of 5 men stand in the middle of the stage, dressed in white hazmat suits and similar eyewear, as the set progresses these stage-dwellers start clambering into the audience and plotting themselves throughout the crowd. It seems like this stage gimmick needs some extension and possibly a bigger stage. Sadly, the music doesn’t speak to me but i’m very intrigued to see how these guys inevitably handle huge success moving forward.
Pelican are a respected band on the fringe of alternative music, known for their sludgy and metallic riffing style, inspired and/or similar to groups like Mastodon and their free tempo way of playing that often gives the sense of minimal stability. Unfortunately and whilst the majority of the crowd disagreed with me, this wasn’t the kind of music that translated well live for me. The drumming seemed like it needed to be more complicated and less reserved to compensate for the twin guitar thudding and pounding. Overall, not something i’d pay to see again but I can respect the band’s status and importance and i’m grateful to have witnessed it either way.
Zeal & Ardor
For better or worse, this is gimmick music. The band are quite literally formed off of the back of a Reddit post where frontman Manuel Gagneux attempted to test his creativity by asking for genres to fuse together as to challenge himself, ultimately faced with the task of fusing slave chant music with black metal, Zeal & Ardor was the resulting product. That said, I don’t think it’s a gimmick done in poor taste nor do I think there’s anything particularly temporary about it all. I think moving forward the band should attempt to fuse more genres together rather than just stick to this one sound because, for all of it’s positive qualities, this is essentially slogan metal by which I mean, you know all 2 of the lyrics by the end of the first verse. Appealing of course to the overall attention span of most audiences in 2018 but ultimately, lacking in any attempt to explore its surroundings further. That said, the band themselves are excellent, the set delivers easily one of the best drum performances of the weekend and an incredible 3 part harmony vocal through all of the tracks. One of the pick-me-ups I needed on the second day of the festival, this band are definitely worth your attention because whether you like it or not, they ARE the next big thing.
This set seemed to be a bit of a mess from where I was standing unfortunately. Perhaps the band had overestimated their own importance but a lack of crowd enthusiasm lead to some pretty awkward stage banter including one liners such as “that part earlier where I told you I had cancer and to fuck off, i’m sorry about that” met with “seeing you apologise like that really turned me on”. The band talked more than they played from what it seemed. A full album performance of ‘The Fallen Host’ meant that due to the way the original album was sequenced, there was a whole 10 or more minute wait before any riffing actual came in. Ambient, electronic and post music is my jam but there was nothing going on for the first few tracks to keep my attention even remotely. Unfortunately their music didn’t didn’t translate in a live environment, it’s atmosphere and Porcupine Tree style moodiness really wasn’t captured, at least in this case.
A band I have spent many a year undecided about, I could never for the life of me figure out whether I was a fan or not. The vocals always seemed so divisive to me as well as some of the more traditional heavy metal choices harmonically speaking in the composition. Ultimately, Leprous went on to be one of my festival highlights. The whole show paid off, these lengthy, explorative and progressive compositions fit this environment so much better than expected. Vocalist Einar wins the award for most impressive vocal performance of the entire festival by a landslide.
Tides Of Man
After having spent a little time with the band’s touring guitarist and bonding over emo and post hardcore bands we liked, I was directed towards Tides of Man’s set headlining the Bixler stage on the Friday evening. One of a few post rock offerings, leaning more on the emotional side similar to 2017 headliners Explosions in the Sky’s trademark sound but unfortunately, not quite as potent. I wasn’t expecting anything to beat ETIS’s headline set last year and still, nothing has so far.
‘Sorry guys we’re not that pro’ is how the set is opened verbally into the microphone by guitarist Justin Beck, a reference to the fact the whole audience watched their entire line and sound check. Problems emanate from the Kemper Profiler amp simulator Jason is using, no surprises there then. Vocalist Daryl is seen hiding behind the drum kit and not checking his own vocals and having the others do it for him, in order to maintain his grand entrance to the stage in which he’s seen dropping his bag by the drum riser along with some towels and tissues, a spectacle; it was not. I’m a big Glassjaw fan, I was glad to hear so much of 2017’s ‘Material Control’ made its way into the setlist, amongst other offerings from throughout the band’s discography. Having seen contemporaries Converge last year, alongside groups similar renowned within the same style including Deftones, Dillinger and Every Time I Die I wasn’t optimistic that Glassjaw were going to take the top spot on the list of alternative rock and metal bands that I had seen. Of course, they didn’t. It was however, a great performance with only a few minor problems. Those being that one, the vocals weren’t loud enough whatsoever and two it was really, really fucking long. The whole set is held together by the incredibly tight and tasteful bass playing provided by Travis Sykes as well as the cult like following that Glassjaw have maintained their whole careers. Overall, to witness such a legendary band take to the stage felt significant but perhaps not as exhilarating as I was hoping for.
It could be argued that these guys are the ultimate ArcTanGent band. Math rock meets post rock meets technical/progressive rock meets ambience meets midwestern, jangly emo guitar sounds. The stage is commanded by just two men, facing one another playing guitar and drums. The guitar is providing bass loops thanks to the undoubtedly large collection of effects pedals on the floor as well as the occasional bowed guitar textures to input some additional ambience, confronted with the most technically demanding and impressive drumming of the entire weekend. The highlight of the set comes from one of the tubes in the Marshall head being used to run a stereo guitar sound blowing up, followed by a group of stage hands coming onto to remedy the situation as the crowd are bathed in ambient guitar swelling whilst the amp head is replaced, and stereo guitar sound is brought back online and then, as if by magic, the two succinctly and perfectly drop right back into the already complex section they had abandoned for a few minutes. The crowd knew that what they had just witnessed was tangible, very real musical chemistry between two people.
So I FINALLY saw Black Peaks live, after missing them at numerous events over the last year or two including a local show in Cornwall. The Brighton based 5 piece take to the Yohkai stage with a lethal energy that is felt throughout the audience and on the stage. The band sonically sound great, one of the best sounding bands the Yohkai stage has hosted in the last 2 years of ATG, easily. The band’s setlist is packed with crowd pleasers and their relationship with the audience commands respect and interaction. Anyone who witnessed this sat will surely speak highly of the performance!
Mouse On The Keys
This was something I was really looking forward to and thankfully, I was right to do so. Unfortunately, here’s another band that we’re watching sound and line check during the period between whatever band just finished over at the PX3 stage and their set starting. Despite this lengthy check, the second keyboard is still mixed far too loudly and is rattling the entire place and all of the skeletons inside of it. That said, the band are fucking flawless. We’re talking levels of musicianship and discipline that are completely out of the realm of comprehension. The band are also incredibly humble and grateful for being here performing for the ATG audience, which is lovely to see. These guys are undoubtedly some of the most talented musicians on the planet, and worth a watch.
Over the last year or so i’ve had some great conversations with the guys from Toska, namely guitarist Rabea whom i’ll discuss things like equipment, touring, live performance and so on. On this occasion Rabea has expressed some concerns regarding the bands first time using backing tracks and debuting new material so I was eager to see how this set compared to their UK Tech-Metal Fest appearance the previous year. Suffice it to say, the band met the same standards. Making a conscious decision to omit the insufferable act of setting up in front of the entire audience, then walking off and back on as if we didn’t just watch you set your equipment up and instead opting to start the set early, absolutely earned my respect and was a breath of fresh air. The three piece prog metal powerhouse take to the stage with 4 length, compact and complicated compositions, abandoning any material from debut EP ‘Ode To The Author’. The new material sounds far less reliant on backing tracks that I had imagined initially, which was a relief. Overall, this was a great performance and Toska are cementing themselves as one of the most significant progressive bands in the country.
The group abandon a complicated lighting rig for just having the house lights on the whole set, with the drum kit taken of the riser and placed in the middle of the stage, with all three of the members stood in a row. There is a tangible electricity in the air when Mr. Steve Albini walks out on stage, those in-the-know all collectively gasp in excitement that they are genuinely sharing the same oxygen as someone so significant and important for their contributions to music. Bassist Bob Weston gathers the photographers down in front of the barrier whilst Albini tunes his guitar and gestures something to them, all I could make out was “are you going to be taking photos for the whole show?” and then all of them looked quite scrambled and thrown off, perhaps he was saying they didn’t want any photographs to be taken, or the opposite? Who knows. There is definitely a layer of irony and disdain for social interaction being exemplified by the whole band, a twisted american humour that much of the crowd, especially those nearer my age don’t seem to really be getting. The band have arguably the simplest rig of any band of the weekend and have made it effective, the sound is magnificent and very clear. The angular, disjointed riffing and rhythms of the bass and guitar met by Todd Trainer’s lethal GBH style assault on his drum kit provides for a driving and visceral performance.
Shellac are known in part for their incredible musical chemistry and their stopping and starting mid-Riff, these moments are impressive and keep the audience guessing. As the band move closer towards more widely known material that the crowd singing along to, the interaction with the audience begins to open up. Albini himself mentions that he enjoyed speaking to a few fans whilst walking around the festival grounds earlier in the day and that he rarely enjoys talking to people at all so it came as a nice surprise. The biting and cynical sense of humour emanating from the stage is admirable and idiosyncratic of these 3. Weston asks the crowd if they have any questions, someone asks “Do you still enjoy doing this?”, Weston initially says yes and Albini subsequently says “Besides enjoyment.. I can’t think of a single other motive behind doing this” a few people in the audience pick up what he’s putting down and everyone gets a laugh out of the scathing honesty in that response though the performance itself suggest perhaps he was being sincere and money wasn’t the ulterior motive. As the set draws to a close, the band play extended versions of ‘Wingwalker’ and ‘The End of Radio’, fitted to the brim with Albini’s patented blend of ranting and improvised spoken word. On this occasion we’re met with some truly introspective statements from the 56 year old counter-cultural icon including my personal favourite line: “We’re all family and I love you all.. But when i’m up in my plane and i’m looking down at you.. It’s all trivial.. If I had a button that I could push, that would burn you all to ash, you’re goddamn right i’d push it and i’m ashamed to say that, but that’s me.” Spoken with hand on heart, addressing the front rows standing away from the microphone so as not to be heard by everyone. That sentence really deeply resonated with me. The band close the set with the succinct and punchy track ‘Spoke’, before Albini and Weston remove all of Trainer’s drum equipment whilst he’s in the middle of playing and begin packing down their gear before the song has even finished. No pretense, no stage theatric, no drama, just rock and roll. If you haven’t, go and see Shellac. It’s worth it.
My, my that’s a lot of live music and a lot of words but there you have it, ArcTanGent 2018 is over and now we wait another year to see what’s on offer. Personally i’m predicting 2019 is the year they finally book The Mars Volta and Mogwai, but I won’t get my hopes up. Regardless, we can guarantee you that the line up will justify the ticket price no matter who these guys book. 2000 Trees and ArcTanGent should be on any alternative music fans list of must-sees. See you next year!