Big festival shows are a staple for fans of nearly any genre of music. In heavy metal, as with many other aspects of the genre, this seems to be amplified. With entire "chains" of festival (such as the successful Death Fests and the growing Terror Fest circuit) and legendary events of absurd proportions like Wacken, it's easy for fans to experience uncertainty at the many choices before them.Multidisciplinary festival Roadburn has been something of an outsider in the community for the past two decades of its existence, yet it's also gained a fierce loyalty in both attendees and artists. Instead of seeking out the biggest buzz names in today's scene, Roadburn's curation has always been rooted in experimentation and the fringes of extreme sound.
Perhaps it's because Roadburn began as a humble webzine rather than an attempt at subcultural dominance, or perhaps it's because founder Walter Hoeijmakers never lost his youthful enthusiasm for loud and challenging music, but there's something pure and beautiful about the festival. While things have grown from a one-day event in a single venue to four days of strange and groundbreaking music, film, and visual art spread across multiple venues in the town of Tilburg, Netherlands, the core commitment to engaging with and celebrating an artistic community remains fully intact. Artists often arrive at Roadburn to perform one-off, rare shows, such as last year's performance of occult rockers Coven, their first in decades.
For the 2018 edition of Roadburn, which occurs just three months from now, the festival is expanding into even newer territory, with two commissioned pieces from seasoned metal experimentalists to bookend the program. On Thursday, April 19, Oranssi Pazuzu and Dark Buddha Rising are collaborating as one entity entitled Waste of Space Orchestra.On Sunday, April 22, members of Misþyrming, Wormlust, Naðra, and Svartidauði will come together to perform a massive composition entitled Sól án Varma, which can approximately be translated as “Sun without radiance.” We spoke with curator Walter Hoeijmakers, as well as representatives from each of the acts sharing commissioned pieces to get a clearer picture of the essence of Roadburn through the lens of these unique performances.
In speaking with Hoeijmakers, it becomes clear that he’s incapable of hiding his excitement surrounding his own festival. It’s not a self-aggrandizing display, but rather a love for the entire lineage of rock music as it’s grown into increasingly challenging new art forms. While Roadburn began in 1998 as a webzine connecting the thriving stoner rock scene at the time, it quickly grew into a concert and then a festival. For Hoeijmakers, this transition is not only natural, but makes perfect sense.“Regardless of where things go, we wanted to keep the thrilling experimentation and rocking nature of bands like Hawkwind and Black Sabbath. While these newer artists may not sound the same, they embody the very creative passion and essence we love, which is why we’ve invited them to share these unique commissioned performances. They’re doing something new and we want to push them even farther. We don’t need to bring the bands that draw a crowd, we want the bands that draw in the open-minded lovers of music.”This love of open-minded audiences and creative challenges for the artists themselves is enthusiastically seconded by Oranssi Pazuzu’s bassist Toni Hietamäki, who lists the fearlessness of the crowd as one of his favorite reasons to perform at Roadburn, which he’s done for the past two years in a row. For this third performance, instead of just playing as part of Oranssi Pazuzu, the aim of Waste of Space Orchestra is considerably higher. With ten musicians onstage and three vocalists conveying distinct characters, there is a direct trajectory planned.
When asked about this, he shares, “These characters are metaphysical representations of the members who are singing the part. They each have their own way of approaching things and to me they represent these unique ways of seeing things. The concept of the piece is about them coming together and transforming into one creature that is greater than the whole group. To me, it seems logical.”Though bringing two distinctive, experimental acts together may seem challenging to outsiders, Hietamäki explains the benefits of being in such a small community in Finland. “[The community in Wastement rehearsal studio] is a small group of friends with tight connections. Tampere is a small town. There are lots of rock bands but very few experimental and metal bands, so it becomes easier to connect with the people who play the same kind of music.”The Icelandic acts from the Vánagandr community share a similar sense of collaboration that comes from being locked into a small scene. Dagur from Misþyrming explains, “When [a show or festival is] going on, you offer your help and then you get lost in the process and suddenly you become part of it. It’s small, so we’ve all made things happen for each other. Everybody calls each other up for things and we all show up to help out. Everybody here who’s in the scene has been playing for at least a decade. We’ve all been playing gigs and doing things together for so long. If somebody gets a good idea, it’s easy for us to ring somebody up and make it happen.”
With bands formed out of the ether with such spontaneity, it’s clear that uniting members of many separate groups will be little challenge. Those who witnessed the transcendent Úlfsmessa performance at the 2016 edition of Roadburn still speak of these Icelandic acts with a certain awe, so the impact of this impending performance is hard to understate.Despite decades of first-hand involvement, organizer Hoeijmakers mentions the Úlfsmessa in our conversation, explaining what an impact it had on him and the whole audience. “When the Icelandic bands came together for their Úlfsmessa performance in 2016, the performance ran until two in the morning, but the audience was so enthusiastic and I can still feel the energy I felt that night. These are the things that matter.” Similarly, with Oranssi Pazuzu and their companions in Dark Buddha Rising, he mentions the strong audience reaction and unearthly atmosphere created during their show.These bands are just on the cusp of breaking through to being festival headliners elsewhere, yet Roadburn is highlighting them while they’re still finding their footing on a larger scale. When asked to elaborate, Hoeijmakers says, “We want to be a forward-thinking festival. In the last couple of years, we’ve seen this whole community grow… they’re all creating a small universe of their own and doing fascinating new artistic goals. These are the headlining acts of tomorrow and we want to celebrate them today. They have a forward-thinking attitude and they need the opportunity to grow in the public eye, which is why we’re highlighting them.”
The highlighting and determination shows. These bands are certainly not overlooked on a global level, with Oranssi Pazuzu’s recent visits to the United States going over wonderfully and the banner year Vánagandr acts had in 2017 on the European festival circuit. Still, this smaller capacity festival manages to capture the hearts of the artists in a way that speaks volumes about the bands and organizers just the same.Tomas, who plays in almost every act in the Vánagandr community, shares, “They grant a lot of creative freedom when it comes to doing special performances. They make sure that you can be at your best to make these special things happen. It’s one of my favorite festivals, with consistently good line-ups and so many favorite bands of ours frequent the festival, which we would never see in Iceland.”
Immediately following this, he began to share the bands he was most excited to watch at Roadburn 2018, a telling feature of the festival. For many artists, this is not just a stop on a spring tour, but an actual destination event.As Roadburn becomes more and more of a self-contained universe, it also manages to reach outside of itself and impact the greater heavy metal scene as a whole. As a final question to Walter Hoeijmakers, I asked him what he wanted to see as Roadburn’s future. Oddly enough, this proved to be the toughest question for a man whose vision and passion have driven him onward for so many decades. The response, however, was simple and honest. “I hope that Roadburn will become a festival that redefines heavy music in every way possible. We don’t need it to just be heavy in sound, but with songwriters that create something heavy and moving, space rock that goes into uncharted territory, or even left-field hip-hop and dark electronic music. The most important thing is that we view heavy as so much more than just the most commonly discussed sense. We need to explore it in every possible way.”Between these two unique pieces from genre-expanding acts and a lineup that spans the entire stretch of psychedelic and heavy music, Roadburn’s 2018 edition seems sure to add to this already growing legacy. Roadburn will be held from Thursday, April 19 through Sunday, April 22, with a pre-party on Wednesday, April 18 in Tilburg, Netherlands.Ben Handelman is burning rubber on Twitter.