Like many others, the award-winning ArcTanGent festival which took place on 17-20th August, has seen a hiatus of three years and now its back in 2022 for its seventh rendition. Having grown in capacity over that time, this year still saw a relatively intimate crowd of ten thousand festival goers, here to sample some of the best alternative music the world has to offer. Spread over five tents in the relaxed setting of the working Fernhill Farm are an eclectic range of bands, all with an experimental element from mathy djent and the beloved post-hardcore favourites to grind and now, pop hardcore, yes you heard that right. This time round they’ve gone more extreme with the addition of even MORE avant-garde in the realms of folk, death and black metal acts and we are here for it!
Thursday- Day One
Thursday kicks off early at 11a.m. but logistical and new tent issues mean missing Pijn and the imitable Dvne – who apparently smashed it. So, our first day begins with the return of the ethereal A.A. Williams. Gothic tinged show gaze mixed with subtle and fragile dream pop and unforgiving swathes of dense heaviness that is brimming with intense emotion. Guitarist and vocalist Alex WIlliams’ voice is powerful and at points fragile as glass, her backing band dynamically toy with soft and loud, fast and slow adding subtle textures to create a jarring, moody atmosphere.
Over at the PX3 next is Cryptic Shift from the UK who are last minute additions following other cancellations. From a personal point of view, it could just be the wrong vibe following such a forlorn one, but their experimental mathy, spacey death metal though technically tight as fuck, doesn’t hit quite right.
Having previously born witness to Imperial Triumphant blow minds with their jazzy black metal – expectations are reasonably high. Unfortunately, they are not met as the sound on the Bixler stage is poor at the start which really muddies their discordant sound. The guttural vocals are all but lost and the most audible instrument comes from the genius drummer Kenny Grohowlski. The relatively short set means the expansive but oppressive gaps with complex improv drum fills and the generally chaotic sound doesn’t have room to breathe or to stand out. The quartet still try to maintain their ominous and magnificent presence. Clad in gold masks and robes, hedonistically pouring champagne over the audience and trying to rile up the crowd from the photo pit with guitars in the air etc. The problem with being all pomp but seemingly no flair can approach gimmick territory and the New Yorkers are not their usual triumphant selves.
Back at the main stage and playing an early time slot the French synth wave artist Perturbator, gets a bit of a static reception from a lot of the audience which results in some of the magic and excitement being a little lost. The sinister John Carpenter inspired synth wave born from the mind of James Kent has a dark metal twist but lacks a little lustre. The fantastic laser light show which includes a giant pentagram backdrop provide an audible and visual feast and prove that they would be more apt in a headline slot. However, the pulsing beats added by a backing drummer alongside Kents heavy riffs entices more moshing than dancing from the core crowd who don’t give a shit what time it is.
Alcest from France are sometimes a little hit and miss but tonight on the Bixler stage they are stunning. Neiges pitch perfect vocals soar above a blackened shoe gazey concoction of uplifting riffs and celestial tremolos which perfectly balances the light and darkness of hope and despair. Playing an excellent selection from across their discography they start with the newer Protection from Spiritual Instinct and conclude end with the stunning 2013’s Deliverance. The haunting ‘Autre Temps’ with its anthemic hum along and rising melancholic melodies is a beautiful highlight in the middle of a turbulent odyssey through a battle of internal conflict.
Following on from the harmonious and forlorn melodies of Alcest, the punishing blackened and sludgy post hardcore band Amenra prove to be more of a baptism of fire than gentle cathartic melancholy. Opener ‘Razoreater’ from 2008 Mass iiii combines touching, barely audible singing with anguish ridden howls and lurching repetitive layers of desolate and formidable down tuned riffs. The five Belgians normally play a longer set but still have time to introduce the perplexed crowd to the painful ritual of worshipping at The Church of Ra. ‘A Solitary Reign’ from the ubiquitous Mass VI is especially distressing with its juxtaposed bleak and bludgeoning riffs and soul crushing lamentations on loss and sorrow. Singing with his back to the audience for the majority of the set Colin Van Eeckhout creates both a compelling and uncomfortable feeling, like catching glimpses of a tortured soul laid bare and spreading a contagious visceral cleansing through those brave enough to accept it. It’s not for everyone but whether spellbound or shellshocked most must agree it is an otherworldly if merciless experience.
Headlining the main stage tonight are the legendary Swedish post hardcore sextet Cult of Luna. There is already a sense of anticipation as the almost primitive opener ‘Cold Burn’ from the critically acclaimed Long Road North explodes over the speakers, it’s a powerful beginning to a slow but magnificent ascent of pulsing post hardcore through a psychedelic, sonic soundscape. The ingenious Swedes play a mix of songs from their last four albums and delighted fans are also treated to the slow burner that is ‘Ghost Trail’ from Eternal Kingdom. Johannes Pearsons vocals are tortured, drawn out and stunningly contrasted against building arpeggios while quiet subtle riffs are joined by crashing cymbals and complex rolling drum fills, which build in both pace and volume. In a trance of their own they don’t address the packed-out crowd at all but if they had it would break the spell they have cast. The climactic finale brings them full circle to another recent release ‘Blood Upon Stone’ which is truly a magnificent end to the evening. Like Amenra it’s a hypnotic affair but somewhat of a soothing balm for the eyes, ears and soul and a definite loud and heavy highlight of the weekend.
Friday – Day Two
It’s an early start to catch the effortlessly cool Five the Hierophant from London kill it on the main stage for as they later put it “the breakfast show”. The tent is packed for the four mysterious figures in cloaks and hoods wielding an array of brass instruments that create a unique and eerie eastern sound. The menacing, doomy bassline contrasts with piercing, moody while the pulsating driving force from the fervent dual percussionists round out the ominous sound perfect. An ambient, psychedelic drone made up of touches of almost every alternative genre out there is the result, a wonderful transcendent start to the day.
Tuskar are a brilliantly dynamic duo playing on the PX3 stage, made up of a drumming powerhouse Tyler Hodges and riff master Tom Dimmock. It’s a pity that sound wise at least, it’s the drumming and vocals that really stand out and Dimmocks but they still level the PX3 and the audience go berserk. Starting off relatively calm there is clearly a lot passion in their music which goes on a progressive journey and builds up to a solid helping of heavy as fuck sludgy. Replete with tectonic drum fills and monolithic and sometimes thrashtastic head-bang inducing riffs; theres also a certain groove in the dissonant free for all, plus of course, a fuck ton of fuzz. Thank fuck for ear plugs!
The Finish quintet Oranssi Pazuzu are another highly anticipated unique and innovative act. Their miasmatical blackened metal is an immersive and relentless trip through a fucked up dystopic sci-fi hellscape. Throbbing and jangly sinister synths and groovy, ominous basslines clash against demonic snarls while the thunderous drumming is dynamic and discordant. Another spell has been cast at Arctangent and the crowd are whipped up into a twisted dancing and head-banging trance like state. A sensory experience as captivating as it is weird.
As they announce it is their third appearance Caspian from Boston, USA also point out that ArcTanGent is the best festival they have played. What they play is engulfing and hypnotic yet also uplifting and a shimmering antidote to their far heavier counterparts. The instrumental ebb and flow of explosions and subtle textures created by a curation of three effect laden guitars is epic and when joined with the layers of vocal harmonies and even a solemn saxophone solo, it becomes orchestral and cinematic. All this is enhanced by heavy drums and crashing cymbals to add some heft and emotion to the celestial musical melange.
Mono, a prolific post rock quartet from Japan play a stupendous set that ascends peaks and valleys. With crescendos of classical and post-rock compositions, right up to much heavier metal sound that builds in magnitude and complexity throughout the sensuous performance. The two guitarists begin sat down, fixated on their collection of pedals for the quieter parts of the set. Meanwhile, standing out in the middle and giving it her all is bassist Tamaki Kunishi. She is eventually joined in her vigor by her band mates who throw their instruments around with abandon and show what they can really do when those heavier riffs kick in. ‘Ashes in the Snow’ showcases dynamic drumming – from subtle to pounding drums that build in pace and rhythm as backbone to swathes of effect laden trembling guitar and reverberating feedback. The visceral guitar shredding that follows is especially poignant and evocative and It’s amazing how the music builds in intensity before disappearing into the ether. It’s clear why Mono are a firm festival favourites and veterans.
Playing the last slot of the night on the Yokhai stage are Zeal & Ardor, the brainchild of half Swiss and half African American Manuel Gagneaux. Harmonic vocals are powerful if a little cheesy losing the earlier raw edge. They play a range of tracks from their three releases but overall the chugging djenty riffs form newer material become too simplistic and repetitive and even the black metal chord progressions have been diluted in the older dynamic tracks such as ‘Devil is Fine’. It would seem they have lost a bit of the darker more sinister vibe from their unique call and response songs vs black metal. The juxtaposition they were originally known for when the played a pivotal performance at Roadburn festival in 2017 has now led to (dare it be said) an average nu-metal sound.
A good portion of the audience however, love it and wholeheartedly sing along to the catchy lyrics. They have become somewhat of a crowd-pleasing band with an easier to digest production and overall sound, but will no doubt continue to make waves in the metal scene. With the vital anti racism message they carry, that’s what’s important
Words: Abi Coulson