Empyrium / all photos by Falk-Hagen Bernshausen
Incubate is the kind of festival that sets you up for failure. Of course you want to catch as many bands as humanly possible, and since the majority of the festival venues are located within a few minutes of its host city of Tilburg's small, pedestrian-friendly city center, it's easy to bounce from venue to venue. The close proximity makes it all the more tempting to set out a rigid schedule—"I will see this band, then then this band, and then this band, and nothing shall stand in my way!"—but you know, deep down, that you're going to fail, because it's way more fun to wander around and peer into weird little venues to discover new bands, and take the time to have a drink with new people, and generally just be present. The trick to really enjoying a huge, eclectic music festival is to kill your darlings, and choose a small, manageable handful of must-see bands; then, pick out a few wild cards, and see where you end up.
The Ruins of Beverast
If you're a writer or photographer covering the fest, you're under a more serious obligation to pound the pavement and check off every band on your agenda in order to emerge victoriously clutching an exhaustingly comprehensive festival review—but that's kind of a boring way to experience a music festival. If you approach it that way, you're never going to notice how many people brought their parents this year (I met two adorable moms and an affable dad who was decidedly unimpressed with Lifelover's blood-smeared performance), or happen upon an esteemed British noise artist propping up a hotel bar, or have a Norwegian explain to you what "grave salmon" is. Weird things like that are what separates a typical "lots of bands playing in a place" situation from a proper festival—that atmosphere of uncertainty and adventure separates the mystical Roadburns from the corporate Glastonburys of the world, and is something that Incubate has got down to a science.
Incubate bills itself as an "annual celebration of cutting-edge culture," and more than delivers. The festival runs for an entire week each year, employing upwards of 300 people as staff and volunteers, and consumes the entire city of Tilburg. There was a pop-up shop selling records and merchandise, a craft beer festival, art installations, film screenings, an entire Incubate Radio outpost in the town square, and over 200 bands from all over the world playing in more than 20 venues ranging from rock clubs and bars to a classical concert hall, a skate park. and an outside stage in a nearby forest. It's an overwhelming display of creativity, diversity, and appreciation for the musical arts, and whether you're there for three hours or three days, you're bound to stumble across something magical. If the good lord's willing and the creek don't rise, you'll see some fantastic bands and discover new favorites in between quaffing pints of Duvel or strolling through Tilburg's serpentine streets.
I was only able to attend three days of the festival this year, but went in with a very specific agenda, laser-focused on one very specific venue. The Natuurtheater takes the guise of a mock Roman ampitheatre, its secluded open-air stage located a twenty-odd minute drive away (40 minutes on one of the festival-provided shuttle buses), set back in the heart of a forest. The venue played host to a few legendary performances in years past, and Incubate’s 2015 programming focused on summoning the highest caliber of extreme metal and neofolk to its stage.
Friday's lineup included Emptiness, Drowned, Necros Christos, Bolzer, Hell Icon, The Ruins of Beverast, and Secrets of the Moon. It was a wet, gloomy day; the towering trees that ringed the theater bowed in the breeze, heavy with rain, as concertgoers crowded in front of the stage or perched gingerly on the edges of soggy seats. Belgian death metal upstarts Emptiness roared through the forest as I made my way inside, clearing the path for a similarly crushing but more straight-forward and rather inanimate performance from the stoic Germans in Drowned.
The reason that extreme metal often benefits so greatly from the use of theatrics in a live setting is because, without props or costumes or at least some energy, the audience is usually stuck looking at a bunch of hairy people in black shirts staring down at their fretboards. Musically, Drowned's set was on point—and no one's expecting a serious, intense death metal band to be running around pulling faces or doing jumping jacks onstage—but it wouldn't have killed them to move around a bit. Clad in their usual Eastern-inspired garb, Necros Christos injected some much-needed energy into the damp crowd.
The German occultists suffered slightly from uneven sound—Mors Dalos Ra's usually earth-shaking roar was muffled beneath the guitars—but still sounded massive. I'm a huge fan so I'm more than a little biased, but watching Necros Christos conjure up fire and brimstone beneath the darkening sky was as close to a spiritual experience as a godless soul could desire. Afterwards, Swiss duo Bölzer brought a charged physicality to the stage, unveiling some new material that saw burly frontman Okoi Jones experimenting with unorthodox clean vocals that seemed to signal an interesting new direction for the death metal wunderkinds.
A howl and the crackle of flames echoed through the woods, beckoning us closer to witness yet another surprise. "Ritual black noise" troupe Hell Icon stared out at us, faces bloody and eyes black, as they led us in a blasphemous devotional beneath the trees. Robed figures rose above the rhythmic thud of drums, their ragged chants and angelic trills sending chills down our assembled spines. It was eerie, and unsettling, and enthralling—everything you'd want in a nighttime forest ritual, really, and the last thing you'd want to stumble upon unawares.
Secrets of the Moon
The Ruins of Beverast and Secrets of the Moon ended the evening on a high note. Ruins was all bleak grandeur, crawling through an atmospheric set and filling the amphitheatre with hoarse invocations and morose melodies under the cover of night. Secrets of the Moon closed the proceedings with a flourish; their doom-inflected black metal felt alien and imposing in the open air, rewarding the remaining faithful for their fealty.
The Ruins of Beverast
Saturday was devoted to soaking up that aforementioned atmosphere (and sleeping off my jet lag). I was gutted to miss the Natuurtheater's doomier offerings that day, especially Ggu:ll; they invited Farida Lemouchi, former mouthpiece of The Devil's Blood, onstage, and it sounds like I missed something magical. I took consolation in knowing that I'd witnessed something terribly special myself that evening, though, thanks to King Dude. It was in Tilburg that I first time I saw TJ Cowgill suit up and sing out his bewitching baritone odes to love and Luciferian darkness; then, as now, he played inside a church, and I struggle to think of a better venue for a King Dude show.
Photo by the author / King Dude
The natty, chatty Cowgill is the spitting image of Bulgakov’s Satan—disguised as a dapper gentleman, strolling through the night with fire in his eyes and whiskey in his belly—and delivered his sermons unto a rapt congregation that packed the church and spilled out into the darkness. I was raised Catholic, but the only time a church has ever felt holy to me is when King Dude was there presiding over the pulpit. Sharing a few swigs of Jameson with him after the show in the back room of the church was an unexpected highlight, and a definite upgrade from the usual stale wafers and weak communion wine.
Sunday brought out the sun and the goths. In this neck of the woods, the final day of Incubate was all about neofolk—save for Lifelover. The Swedish depressive black metal-dark rock hybrids stuck out like a sore thumb, but delivered one of my favorite performances of the weekend. The more animated of the two singers they brought out was a vision in chaos, whipping his hair back and forth and flashing crazy eyes at the audience as he flailed and howled, his face purpled by a sweaty mixture of dried crimson blood and blue paint. Lifelover’s rollicking set came interspersed with snippets of jaunty folk tunes, and set the stage nicely for Of the Wand and the Moon's quiet acoustic comedown.
Danish musician Kim Larsen performed alone, armed only with an guitar and his own gentle, soothing whisper. His performance was spare, and simple, and achingly lovely to witness beneath a canopy of leaves and light; it provided a soothing lull in the evening's progression, and a nice counterweight to Empyrium's bombastic closing set. As a creeping chill settled into our bones, the German neofolk legends took the stage six people strong (joined by members of Dornenreich, Les Discrets, Neun Welten, and The Vision Bleak).
They delivered an over-the-top, symphonic performance that would've felt cheesy were it not so well-executed. It was the perfect closing rite to a weekend distinguished by strong, compelling showings, and the kind of memory I’ll treasure until the next time I’m graced with their presence. After that, it was time to shake off that chill and head to the afterparty for more weirdness—think Dutch polka, conga lines, and shouty Russians. Only at Incubate...
Kim Kelly is already planning her next trip to Chillburg; she's on Twitter.