Yob / Photos by Chris Westgeest
While much of the world has been looking to the musical sights and sounds coming out of California’s Coachella Valley the last two weeks, a few thousand diehard extreme and experimental music fans from around the globe gathered in the city of Tilburg, in southern part of the Netherlands, for the 19th annual Roadburn Festival. Roadburn grew out of the stoner and 70s-fueled psych rock scene of the 1990s and has since expanded to include a wide range of heavy, outsider styles, from the blackest, crustiest metal to post-hardcore, grind, prog, noise, jazz, sludge, space rock, and countless other sonic innovations.
The bands are the cream of the crop of emerging artists, longtime favorites, cult legends, and genre progenitors in a lineup painstakingly curated by founder Walter Hoeijmakers and his team, with one day each year handed over to a special guest (This round it was Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth. Past editions have featured the tastes of Electric Wizard, Voivod, and Sunn O))), to name a few). Each band is given a headliner-length set in front of an enthusiastic—or at least adventurous—audience in a room actually designed for sound, which means practically everyone is on their A-game. For a concertgoer, it’s as if the dive bars, basements, DIY spaces, and rock clubs you’ve lurked in for much of your life are the black and white of Dorothy’s Kansas and your house suddenly smacked down on a Technicolor Oz—except here the evil witches are high-fived along with the good ones.
Along with five stages of bands, there are art shows, discussion panels, and even films dedicated to celebrating the culture surrounding this particular slice of music. It’s one of the only places on Earth I know of where chronically jaded, cynical, heavy rock fanatics such as myself can go and be as happy as we were at our first shows. As Yob frontman (and six-time Roadburn performer) Mike Scheidt said to me during a stop on his solo tour last fall, “When I die, I hope I go to Roadburn.” For the revelers who make the pilgrimage to Tilburg each year, truer words have never been spoken.
Here are just a few of the many highlights from Roadburn 2014:
Thursday, April 10
Chicago avant-metal trio Locrian opened the four-day festival with their first-ever European performance. Playing to a packed crowd in the airy, regal surroundings of a converted church, Het Patronaat, they offered a mix of music from their latest release, Return To Annihilation and its predecessor, The Clearing (both on Relapse Records). From the subtlest, light-speckled melodies to their harshest, most severe noises, every note seemed to fill the room to the rafters. I’ve followed Locrian at home since around the time they formed in the mid-'00s, but this was a completely new way to experience their music. Though they were the first band up, their performance made enough of an impact that people were talking about the show throughout the rest of the week.
Regarde Les Hommes Tomber:
With fists raised amid clouds of smoke, French sludge/post-hardcore quintet Regarde Les Hommes Tomber reeled the audience into their world of devastation and rage in the confines of the Green Room. While the group, which formed in 2011, was one of the newer bands on the festival bill, you wouldn’t have known it from their captivating presence and complete domination of the room. It was the first of many daytime performances where I was surprised to find the sky hadn’t completely blackened by the time they were done casting their spell.
The earthy, dusky beauty of the music of this Seattle-by-way-of-Lawrence, Kansas doom quartet never fails to move me, and the band’s combination of winding, poignant build-ups and ground-shaking releases at Het Patronaat on Thursday afternoon was nothing short of spectacular. It was hard to pull away as Samothrace concluded their set with a majestic rendition of “A Horse of One’s Own“ from their album, Reverence to Stone (20 Buck Spin)—even knowing I was en route to see Napalm Death.
Tidewater, Virginia’s Freedom Hawk is cut from the same cloth of swaggering stoner rock that Roadburn was built on. Rather than feel like an echo of times past, though, the four-piece manhandled their audience into a frenzy with high-energy showmanship and crunchy riffs, wrapping up day one with a welcome dose of feel-good party metal.
Friday, April 11
In an unexpected and awesome late announcement this winter, Roadburn announced that it was bringing rock historian/Patti Smith Group guitarist/record producer Lenny Kaye to Tilburg for a moderated discussion about Nuggets, the iconic compilation of early psychedelic and garage music he curated for Elektra Records in the early '70s that has since become a cornerstone of punk and underground rock to generations of music lovers. As Kaye spoke to a roomful of bleary-eyed ‘Burners, his enthusiasm and passion for new music proved to be contagious, “It struck me that these are bands who are their own Nuggets,” he said of hanging around 013 previous night. “It keeps us alive to our own sense of possibilities.” Later in the day he drank a beer—and, word has it, smoked a joint—onstage during a particularly badass jam session with San Diego acid rockers Harsh Toke.
Promise and The Monster:
Ethereal, Stockholm-based folk-pop trio, Promise and The Monster were the first band up on Friday’s bill, which was curated by Mikael Åkerfeldt. Coming into the festival, the group seemed to be an odd duck on a lineup where even the most barebones performers (Joe Buck Yourself and Cony Ochs, for example) have metal and/or punk roots. As with most things at Roadburn, though, everything makes sense once the band starts to play. Under the direction of singer/guitarist Billie Lindahl, Promise & The Monster’s haunting, three-part vocal harmonies, hand percussion, and synth lines created a breathtaking, otherworldly calm. Even for those of us who arrived fidgety and restless with anticipation for the long day of shows were left mesmerized.
Each year, Roadburn is able to coax a band or two who rarely (if ever) play live onto their stages. This time around Finnish funeral doom band Tyranny—who have only racked up a handful of shows since forming in 2001—was one group we were lucky to have bestow us with a performance. Cloaked in black-hooded robes and shrouded in smoke, Matti Mäkelä, Lauri Lindqvist, and their live band conjured up a menacing, somber air at Het Patronaat, delivering a resonant, darkly intense, and ultimately beautiful impression that would be hard to shake.
After witnessing this young, Norwegian metal crew win South By Southwest in March, there was no way I was going to pass up another opportunity to see them live. Helmed by the towering blond Sindre Solum, Obliteration draws from old school death metal, thrash, and doom influences and putrifies them into a sadistic, refreshed torrent of horror. On Friday evening the four-piece unleashed an onslaught of evil and destruction upon all who dared to enter the Green Room. Roadburn is generally a peaceful affair, but if a war were to have broken out in Tilburg I’d have wanted these guys on my side.
Elephant9 & Reine Fiske:
Closing down the Green Room while Opeth took to the main stage was Norwegian jazz/prog/psych trio Elephant9 and celebrated Swedish guitarist Reine Fiske (also a member of Dungen). Anchored by keyboardist Ståle Storløkken, the four-piece took its time building up in intensity before finally locking into a tight, hypnotic groove. The veteran musicians have collaborated on the world’s jazz festival circuit on numerous occasions, and their exuberant performance Friday night was a testament to both their instrumental skills and group dynamic.
Saturday, April 12
At first glance, it might seem that Finland’s Circle is outsider rock’s answer to the Village People: Among its members are a glam punk dude in a spiked collar, a burly, bearded bassist donning gauntlets and Motorhead-quality riffage, a finely-featured, long-haired, neo-folk guitarist, and an operatic keyboardist/bandleader who could be the spawn of Rob Halford and The Captain (as in The Captain and Tennille). In lesser hands, the genre-shifting music would fall apart at the seams, but Circle is no joke. Making sense of the nonsensical, the avant-rock band delivered one of the most explosive, chaotic shows of the week—or maybe ever. Perhaps the power lies in the color-coordinated, metallic stretch pants they changed into onstage just before set time (Some bands bare their souls. Circle bares almost everything else). If so, everyone would be well-advised to pick up a pair or five.
I’m biased for sure, but I think of Oregon rockers Yob as being one of the greatest bands of our time. They’re often tagged with the “doom” label, but that word hardly begins to describe the soulfulness and staggering weight of their music. Though I’ve seen them many times before, I’ve never heard a venue do justice to the incredible power of their sound quite like the spacious 013 main room. Yob had been invited to perform two sets this year: a Saturday afternoon rendition of their classic album, The Great Cessation (backed by luscious video art from Jérôme Siegelaer) in its entirety and an Afterburner set containing a mix of material from across their catalog. The latter also featured the live debut of a couple of tracks from their upcoming album on Neurot later this year.
Old Man Gloom:
Aaron Harris, Caleb Scofield, Nate Newton, and Santos Montano are some of the most influential and widely-regarded musicians in nearly two decades of exploratory hardcore and post-metal. Any of the members’ other bands (Converge, Isis, Cave In, Doomriders, to name a few) would have been reason enough to head to the show, but it would have been unthinkable to come to Roadburn and miss their incendiary, sludge-fueled (and rarely-performing) collaborative project, Old Man Gloom. Appearing on the main stage on Saturday afternoon, the band delivered a spectacularly thunderous, groove-laden performance of nearly unrivaled intensity, and amped up the excitement another notch with the introduction of a new song. When it was over I needed to find some space outside by myself and cool off. Thanks, guys!
Sunday, April 13 (Afterburner):
Selim Lemouchi's Enemies
Selim Lemouchi & His Enemies:
There was no question that the early March passing of Dutch musician Selim Lemouchi, the mastermind behind occult rock band The Devil’s Blood, would have an impact on Roadburn 2014. The Devil’s Blood played their first show at the festival in 2008, and its members are very much a part of the local music community and festival fabric (guitarists Ron van Herpen and Oeds Beydals each led a jam session on Stage 01 on Friday). Though The Devil’s Blood broke up before last year's scheduled return to 013, Lemouchi’s subsequent project, the dreamy, progressive Selim Lemouchi & His Enemies, was slated to open Afterburner, the festival's traditional closing festivity, this spring. With the scheduled show coming just weeks after Lemouchi's death, it was only natural that many people—friends and fans—were still hurting. Led by his sister and TDB cohort Farida, Selim’s ten “enemies,” played to a gorgeous backdrop of images of him flowing through the elements, lovingly conceived by friend and video artist Jérôme Siegelaer. In all, it was less of a rock show or even a tribute, and more the final symphony of a visionary artist as he intended it to be heard. Days later, I’m still in awe of the band, and especially Farida, for the strength and grace they brought to their performance.
After the release of their diabolical, groove-laden “Aura” EP last fall, Zurich, Switzerland’s blackened metal duo Bölzer became one of the most anticipated emerging artists to come to Roadburn this year. In the confines of the Green Room, the band’s blasting guitar wizardry, pulsating drums, and monstrous atmospheres made the smallish room feel like a Molotov cocktail with a lit fuse. Apparently not as impressed by it all as everyone else, guitarist/vocalist KzR announced, “Apologies. This isn’t our day.” Could have fooled me.
Legendary Celtic Frost / Hellhammer founder and extreme metal pioneer Tom G. Warrior debuted his latest project, Triptykon, at Roadburn in 2010 (he also curated the fest that year). It’s an understatement to say that people were looking forward to his return, especially with the release this month of Triptykon’s highly anticipated second album, Melana Chasmata. With its searing, icy set featuring combination of new material and classics, the band practically had 013 on its knees with excitement.
While Triptykon is admittedly a hard act for any band follow, Boston’s Morne did a stellar job of bringing Roadburn 2014 to an emotive, natural conclusion with its sorrowful, crust-laden music that bears the heaviness of a hundred thousand boulders. The magnitude of their sound was enough to make me forget I’d been watching bands almost non-stop for a full five days, and I left 013 ready for Roadburn 2015 to begin.
Jamie Ludwig is hoping for an unholy burial at Roadburn. She's on Twitter - @unlistenmusic
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