Whilst underground metal has a large following globally, it often takes place in insular, isolated scenes or across oceans online. Perhaps this is why Roadburn feels so special – there’s certainly a reason why so many of its patrons travel in from elsewhere rather than endure the festivals in their home countries. Whilst the giants of UK rock and metal festivals continue to either sway away from heavier music (à la Reading and Leeds), book the same bands on biannual rotation (à la Download) or show how out-of-touch they are by booking artists with histories of blatant far-right affiliations on a stage dedicated to stamping out intolerance (à la Bloodstock), many of us instead decide to fly part-way across the continent to enjoy a festival hellbent on showcasing interesting artists who can offer up a unique experience. Roadburn’s roster is diverse and eclectic, showing the immense breadth of heavy music and beyond. Its curators strive to bring the most interesting and creative artists, and each one they pick is there for a reason beyond sales figures or streaming stats.
Perhaps it’s a sign of how genre boundaries are diminishing that such a varied festival can in truth boast a more immense communal feel than any of its rivals. Modern underground metal is defined not by one particular sound leading the way, but by a strive to be inclusive and creative. As such, Roadburn’s roster is one that’s largely unencumbered by rock star posturing and the “that’s not real metal” gatekeepers. Spread across five stages (plus one surprise venue) in the Dutch city of Tilburg, a horde of music fans take over this city centre for four days each Spring, and this year, Astral Noize went along to experience the madness.
After a free Wednesday night gig for early arrivals headlined by Scottish blackened thrashers Hellripper, Roadburn proper kicks off with five overlapping artists – planning your day around clashes is a frustrating but essential task. Over on the Hall Of Fame stage, UK drone-doom duo Bismuth begin proceedings with the entirety of last year’s The Slow Dying Of The Great Barrier Reef. The first, half-hour-long title-track proves stunning, its environmentalist themes hammered home by a backdrop of serene underwater images that complement the track’s slow build-up before fading ominously into a mushroom cloud as the song reaches its heavier moments. Bassist and vocalist Tanya Byrne flicks a switch here, her ethereal vocals suddenly becoming harrowing screams that leave her and us breathless and disorientated. The comparatively urgent sludge grooves of ‘Weltschmerz’ offer a much-needed release after the oppressing tension of the opener.
Having staked a claim for the immense quality currently on display in the UK doom scene, Bismuth are followed over in Het Patronaat, a venue contained within a church and thus lined by ornate stained-glass windows, by US sludgers Vile Creature. The two politically-minded bands both play new albums in full, with ‘Creature dropping the entirety of 2018’s The Cast Of Static And Smoke. Its gargantuan sludge, defined by a sonic heaviness and emotional poignancy, is just as stifling, and introduces newcomers to the communal spirit shared by the festival’s performers, with a guest appearance from Meredith Graves that set the stage for the wealth of collaborations to come. Also notable is guitarist and vocalist KW’s rousing speech about oppression and hate speech that certifies one thing – do not try that shit here, because they will fight you.
Over on the Main Stage in the city’s 013 concert venue, Molasses, the first commissioned piece featuring new music created specifically for Roadburn 2019, sees the fragmented pieces of The Devil’s Blood come together for a proggy and almost operatic set. Dart over to the Koepelhal, and this year’s Artist In Residence are kicking off the first of four sets. Baton Rouge’s Thou dropped a string of releases last year, each one different from the last, with acoustic EP Inconsolable proving a highlight. Their acoustic set here proves similarly poignant, with vocalist Bryan Funck initially stepping aside to allow a vocal trio to craft an atmosphere that’s a different sort of heavy, filling the high-ceilinged venue – presumably once a factory of some kind – with a brooding aura.
So stacked is Thursday’s lineup that seeing everyone means darting back and forth between stages like a pinball. Overlapping Thou is Lingua Ignota, for whom the Green Room – the much smaller club venue of 013 mere seconds from the Main Stage – is so packed that she has to perform a secret set the next day to make up for those who miss out. Performing in the middle of the crowd, Kristin Hayter’s set is spiritual and almost ceremonial but also visceral in nature, with the fans encircling her keyboard as a single solitary light exudes from her. Hayter’s intimate lyrics are all the more moving live, with her lamenting rendition of ‘Jolene’ proving particularly haunting.
Much calmer is the psych-folk-rock of Hexvessel on the Main Stage, the stripped-back serenity of new album All Tree sounding far grander in such a setting. Elsewhere, Emma Ruth Rundle offers a no-frills set that lets the music speak for itself, the post-rock flourishes of her soft grunge compositions elevating her set beyond any of her peers. Just as atmospherically heavy but umpteen times more chaotic, Brazilian trio Deafkids’ set is cathartic and primal, blending the righteous energy of punk, the hypnotic supernaturality of psychedelia and the frantic intensity of noise.
Meanwhile, pagan oddities Heilung take to the Main Stage adorned in their trademark horns and robes. Though not metal, their music wallows amidst similar atmospherics, tinged by an otherworldliness that’s entirely their own. Their percussion-based compositions are enticing and executed flawlessly, but their performance is as much a visual show as it is a concert, even playing host to a procession of warriors with shields and spears. A move along to the Green Room heralds Bliss Signal’s energetic synergy of blastbeats and electronics. It’s thrilling, even if their frantic use of strobes reaches headache-inducing levels of overwhelming. They are followed by Pharmakon, with Margaret Chardiet taking to the stage alone but embodying the spirit of Heilung’s entire army and more. Her performance is fierce and erratic, as if she is unable to stand still, and she soon grows tiresome of the stage and charges through the crowd, barging past fans and crawling about on the floor as onlookers desperately try not to trip over the microphone lead.
Meanwhile, the Main Stage is being blessed with the entirety of Mono’s Hymn To The Immortal Wind. A celebration of the post-metal landmark’s tenth birthday, the set sees the group collaborate with The Jo Quail Quartet, who bolster the band’s performance and help do justice to the immense scope of the material. Those interested in seeing more from Mono are also able to catch them the next day at a surprise set, but their Main Stage show is perhaps a once in a lifetime event, and thus truly special.
Becoming a dependable first stop of the day, Hall Of Fame plays host to Secret Cutter to kick off Friday. Their furious blend of frenzied grind and clobbering sludge kicks off a procession of Holy Roar bands that dominate the stage for almost the entire day, with their sections of mammoth grooves forcing onlookers to headbang their hangovers away. Walking to the Hall Of Fame means passing through the Ladybird Skatepark, and eagle-eyed Secret Cutter attendees notice Vile Creature setting up for a surprise second set on their way in. The duo prove a highlight of both Thursday and Friday, with the skatepark setting giving the second set a rawer intensity. Their huge riffs and passionate screams can even be heard inside the Hall Of Fame as A.A. Williams takes to the stage for her first ever performance. A nerve-wracking set of circumstances for sure, and yet the bold move to make Roadburn her debut pays off immensely. The soft grunge and dark folk atmosphere quickly drowns out the skatepark racket, proving captivating and alluring whilst filling the room with the same enveloping atmosphere that weighs so heavily over Williams’ debut EP.
Over in Het Patronaat, the vibe is much more frantic, as Deafkids return to team up with Iggor Cavalera and Wayne Adams’ Petbrick, who also performed a day prior, for a collaborative piece that was truly astounding. The maths surely dictate that noise X noise must equal ultra-intense noise, but whilst the set is certainly loud and frantic, a prominent rhythm lends it a more tangibly solid structure than both bands’ usual output, whilst the psych-fuelled atmosphere threatens to warp the minds of those lucky enough to be in attendance.
Another highlight is beginning over on the Main Stage, though, as Sweden’s Anna von Hausswolff provides perhaps the day’s best set. She may not be the heaviest performer on the bill, but she is certainly one of the loudest, her all-encompassing organ and booming bass crafting dark and experimental soundscapes unlike any other. Most impressive, though, is her immense voice, a bone-rattingly powerful entity that pierces through the noise with an expressive weight that’s high like a choir but otherworldly – magical, almost, if it weren’t so ominous and malevolent.
Holy Roar’s Hall Of Fame takeover continues with Conjurer, one of the UK’s finest live bands. Never ones to give less than 210%, their set is as ferocious as anyone who’s seen them before could’ve expected, brimming with an energy that puts their peers to shame. Mayhem ensues on the gigantic breakdown of ‘Retch’, but thankfully Fauna’s folky, atmospheric take on black metal offers somewhat of a breather before Svalbard. “Roadburn, this is what a feminist looks like!” screams guitarist/vocalist Serena Cherry as the Bristol quartet unleash a hailstorm of targeted rage that pulls zero punches, dealing with issues like sexism and animal rights through searing blackened hardcore so cathartic it feels almost cleansing.
Just across the way in the same building, Thou’s second set of the week sees them team up with Emma Ruth Rundle for a setlist of all-new material. Imposingly heavy, with the two artists’ creativity seemingly feeding off one another, the songs sound huge, exploratory and devastating. The inevitable collab album can’t come soon enough.
Similarly huge in scope is the poignant but ruthless post-metal of Manchester’s Pijn, who conclude the Holy Roar X Roadburn collaboration in style. Meanwhile, the less exploratory but just as heavy riffs of melodeath stalwarts and Roadburn 2019 curators At The Gates take over the Main Stage, their melodic nature offering an instant gratification that helps them go down a treat even amongst those unfamiliar with the band’s material. One of the event’s more straightforward artists, the band nevertheless embrace the communal spirit of Roadburn, finding time for guest appearances from the likes of cellist Jo Quail and Sleep’s Matt Pike. Their team-up with Anna von Hausswolff for Philip Glass’ minimalist masterpiece ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ is a particular highlight that sees them step outside of their comfort zone with no fear.
Such is the nature of Roadburn that despite At The Gates’ headline set coming to an end, there’s still hours more to go. Racing over to Het Patronaat means catching Italian jazz-doomers Messa, whose alluring vocals and enticing riffs draw a line out the door and round the corner. The band boast all the trappings of modern doom but with a unique edge, and their bewitching soft-jazz atmospheres captivate onlookers whilst their expressive riffs bathe them in delectable fuzz.
As the Main Stage is treated to the technicolor, psych-fueled voyage that is LOOP, who headlined Roadburn in 2014 after their 2013 reformation, Het Patronaat is taken over by Texans Street Sects. The experimental duo largely forego the less abrasive post-punk of latest LP The Kicking Mule in favour of in-your-face techno and overbearing strobes. For those who’ve paced themselves it is undoubtedly a thrilling finale to a packed day, but their powerful electronics are certainly an endurance test for some following eleven solid hours of quality music.
After a packed day like Friday, Saturday’s more forgiving lack of clashes is a blessing. The day kicks off with Have A Nice Life’s first set of the weekend, before instrumental trio Gore reunite in Koepelhal for a run-through some of their avant-hardcore classics. Over in Hall Of Fame, though, Noisepicker are offering up their unique blend of blues, doom and punk in celebration of Exile On Mainstream’s 20th anniversary. Frontman Harry Armstrong assures the crowd that he and sticksman Keiran Murphy are nice people, really, despite the downtempo nature of their music, before launching into clear set standout ‘This Is How The World Will End’, its bluesy momentum encompassing a rousing spirit that truly sets the day’s gears in motion.
Elsewhere, the Main Stage is packed to the brim with festival-goers trying to catch a glimpse of Sumac, whose experimental strain of post-metal pivots between brute force and contemplative retreat, captivating even those peering in from the hallway. In Het Patronaat, a difference force is brewing, however. The stage has been taken over by Maalstrom – the veritable Avengers of Dutch black metal – a commissioned collaboration of some of the Netherlands scene’s finest bands. Each artist gets their own set throughout the day, culminating in the final collective performance. Astral Noize manages to catch Laster, whose take on the genre is open and spacious, edging towards avant-garde territory, and thus one of the most idiosyncratic sets of the day. A surprise highlight, for sure.
Next up is Cave In, whose return to a big stage is an emotional rollercoaster for those still reeling from the tragic loss of bassist Caleb Scofield last year. Their songs may not be entirely solemn, but the underlying context makes this such a poignant ride that some smartly avoid the band altogether. The room remains full, though, and the band gift those with the stomach one of the day’s most passionate sets.
It’d be a sin to say that Roadburn 2019 sold out simply off the back of Californian stoner legends Sleep, but their appearance most certainly swayed one or two minds. Billed as a celebration of their 27 years as a band (a landmark no one considered worth celebrating until now), their first set begins with the entirety of 1992’s Sleep’s Holy Mountain. The smell of cannabis faintly exuding from several audience members, the trio build anticipation with astronaut radio transmissions, soon after emerging to a wall of applause. The opening riff of ‘Dragonaut’ was enough to force a beaming smile upon this writer’s face, its gloriously infectious groove being played appositely loosely by guitarist Matt Pike, with drummer Jason Roeder holding things together with some stunning timekeeping befitting a founding member of Neurosis.
It’s a delight to hear an album so stacked with wall-to-wall bangers live. These tracks almost sound slower live, something that only bolsters their huge impact, and the band make good use of prolonged sections, whether that’s periods of droney fuzz or the twiddly acoustic solo of ‘Some Grass’, which make the riffs all the more delectable when they finally roar out of the hefty wall of amps lined behind them. The band are billed to play two hours and have a substantial amount of that left as they leave the stage following ‘Nain’s Baptism’. Thankfully, Holy Mountain is not the only landmark in the band’s oeuvre, and it’s (presumably) an error that gives the game away, as the backdrop briefly flashes up the artwork for Dopesmoker.
The band are wise enough not to drop the entire 63 minutes of that classic track, though, distilling its highlights into a half-hour rendition that’s truly captivating – the immense scope feeling all the more real live despite a rawer sound. As the band continue the tour of their back catalogue (though one that expunges anything pre-1992), they then move on to 2014’s ‘The Clarity’, the single that in 2014 marked their first new material since the late ‘90s. It’s ten-minute runtime consolidates everything that makes Sleep so damn enjoyable, from the languorous fuzzy tone and engrossing riffs to Al Cisneros’ sparse but oddly beguiling vocals. Their departure feels too soon even after two hours, but luckily this will not be their final performance of the weekend…
Saturday’s riffs don’t end there either – keen-eyed Thou fans may have noticed that this year’s Artist in Residence is missing from Saturday’s line-up. A day off, perhaps? Or something else? That question is answered over in the skatepark, from which news is spreading of a surprise set. Those in attendance see a completely different side to the usually bleak sludgers here, as they forego their usual sound for a raucous set of Misfits covers. Instead of slowing the tracks down, they lean into the punky spirits of these tracks, and simply let the party rage. Frontman Bryan Funck heads straight into the crowd, spending as much time there as he does onstage. The pit becomes a whirlpool of flailing limbs and crowdsurfers, whilst the halfpipes and ramps are chock-a-block with fans eager to witness the madness. It wouldn’t be Roadburn without a surprise collab, though, as Emma Ruth Rundle joins Thou for a cover of ‘Attitude’, whilst Converge’s Nate Newton also lends his pipes to the energetic pop-up show. Saturday may have begun as a slower affair, but it continuously ramps up, reaching a climax that will surely make it many people’s favourite day.
Once known as the ‘Afterburner’, Roadburn’s Sunday is now a fully-fledged day in its own right. One stage down but with no shortage of quality artists, the day kicks of with experimental post-punkers Have A Nice Life’s second set, in which they perform Deathconsciousness in full. The band displayed their ambition by dropping the double album as their first full-length in 2008, and it sounds just as impressive within Roadburn’s grand Main Stage. In Het Patronaat, Fear Falls Burning’s slow, droney jazz is proving remarkably engrossing, though its ambient nature and expressive saxophone seem to build towards no particular climax. Their set is therefore somewhat of an endurance test, so the sweet relief of Daughters is welcome.
The band have developed since their grinding mathcore origins, now playing a cinematic form of noise rock that they perform here to a tee. But it is frontman Alexis S. F. Marshall who draws all the eyes as he clambers about the stage like a man possessed. His performance is visceral and impassioned, the origins of the scabs on his forehead soon revealing themselves as he smashes the mic against his head and they open up once again. With blood dripping down his face he rolls on the floor, dives into the crowd, climbs on the bar and gobs on the floor before licking it back up and covering the mic in his spit; Marshall’s eyes prowl the crowd like they’re his next meal. The set ends in a dramatic act of self-flagellation, the frontman stood aloft above the enthralled crowd having utterly dominated the stage.
It’s a tough act to follow, nigh-on an impossible one even. Yet next up is Thou, whose brand of uber-sludge is so huge that no such dramatics are needed. Their three sets beforehand had been building to this more standard set that closes out their residency, and it more than delivers. Boasting the same kind of engulfing atmospherics that spearheaded their acoustic set but now with a huge and relentlessly heavy sound, the band prove immensely powerful as they drop some choice cuts from last year’s Magus, as well as a couple from 2014 fan favourite Heathen.
Similarly huge but comparatively gnarlier is the surprise set that followed Thou in the skatepark. Having enthralled a packed Hall Of Fame on the festival’s opening day, Bismuth return to show once again the immense scope of The Slow Dying Of The Great Barrier Reef. A quieter affair can be found over in Het Patronaat, though, as Marissa Nadler brings perhaps the weekend’s most stripped-back performance. The Boston singer-songwriter talks and jokes with the crowd between songs, occasional nerves showing through as she fumbles with her gear between songs, lending her performance an intimate aura that drives home the moving nature of her mournful balladry. ‘Blue Vapor’ proves a set highlight, its stark poignancy and haunting vocals surely being the moment that those welling up simply can’t fight the tears back any longer.
After that emotive display, the ultra-heavy catharsis provided by Old Man Gloom is much needed. The finale to a busy weekend for Aaron Turner, the American sludgers’ set is bolstered by a guest appearance from Converge’s Jacob Bannon. A real treat presents itself soon after in the Green Room, as post-metallers Bossk arrive to perform 2016’s Audio Noir in full. The sections of uplifting atmospherics are transcendent, but the band always drag proceedings back down to earth with bruising sludge crescendos. No wonder the room is packed out the door.
Next up, though, is Sleep’s return. Continuing the celebration of their career to date, the band pick up where they left off by moving on to last year’s The Sciences, the long-awaited follow-up to Dopesmoker. It may not be as universally adored as their past works, but its pure riff worship makes for just as enjoyable a set. Despite them existing for almost three decades, Sleep have here demonstrated that they remain the one true gods of fuzzy riffs and stoner grooves, even amongst today’s packed doom scene.
The festival’s finish ticking ever closer, those with the energy still have the chance to catch one of two acts. Heading to Het Patronaat means catching the last band to ever perform there as part of the festival (a new venue is expected to replace it next year), with esoteric extreme metallers Imperial Triumphant dishing out a form of blackened mayhem that’s entirely their own, with jazzy, freeform compositions that span more than a few disparate sonic plains. Perhaps more fitting as a closer to the weekend, though, is Cave, whose meandering psych is less abrasive but just as intriguing. Channeling krautrock through their loose instrumental explorations, the band’s groove-heavy sound allows for Roadburn 2019 to end with a party rather than yet another aural assault.
Words: George Parr (@georgejparr)
Photos: Teddie Taylor (@teddiestaylor)