Roadburn Festival 2012 – Day 1 Review By Paul Robertson

Undaunted, bloody, but unbowed after my first visit last year I made my way to lovely Tilburg once more to take on the beast known as ‘Roadburn’. The quest to reach Tilburg was somewhat longer and more arduous than last time, but I was aided by my trusty travelling companions Mr Adam Stone, fellow writer of this parish, and Thee Shaman himself, who would be capturing the likenesses of all and sundry using his patented mix of dark sorcery and a camera with a bloody big lens.

Roadburn 2012 Artwork by Michel 'Away' Langevin

We travelled in Thee Shaman’s trusty battle-chariot, or ‘campervan’ as you may know it, into the forbidding south, across deceptively becalmed seas, through unwelcoming France, with its plethora of massively unhelpful road signs, into much less unhelpful Belgium until finally we reached our destination……Holland……TILBURG.

Unlike the previous year I would be pitted directly against the very elements themselves, testing my mettle indeed by spending the four days of our sojourn sleeping in a tent. In a sleeping bag. Fully clothed, as it turned out, for the weather was treacherous. Bloody typical.

And so without so much as a power-nap, we threw up our tents and girded our collective loins for  battle! We were joined at our destination by recent Shamanic recruit and all-around good-egg Saúl Do Caixão, thus completing our infernal quartet.

After trundling across half of Europe without sleep for some twenty-four-plus hours, I was lucky to see bloody anything, but as it was I stumbled into the gorgeous Het Patronaat venue – used at Roadburn for the first time this years – just in time to see erstwhile Swans member Christoph Hahn play an early solo show.

Resplendent in a shiny green suit, Mr Hahn enthralled the small crowd gathered in the foyer area of the venue with a set of bluesy, minor key acoustic numbers, sung at times in German, and on the whole a lot more ‘upbeat’ in tone than one would expect from a member of brain-melting dirge colossi Swans. Unfortunately, the subtleties of his music were largely wasted on my sleep-deprived brain so I’m afraid I have nothing of real depth or import to say about it other than ‘I liked it’.

Quickly shooting over to the 013. for a quick peep at the d.USK/Disembowelment set on the main stage, my total lack of interest in them from back in the nineties is reconfirmed by what I, albeit briefly, saw and so I headed back over to Het Patronaat to catch twisty-turny Norwegians Virus, whom I had particularly been looking forward to, having never had the chance to see Ved Buens Ende back in the day and being very much a great admirer of the last two Virus LP’s.

Roadburn 2012 - Virus

Thankfully, they did not disappoint. Guitarist/vocalist Carl-Michael Eide lead his merry band of men across musical seas of dissonance, tumult and occasional beauty with strident aplomb, looking very well and relaxed indeed after the ordeals of the recent past.

Boasting three, count ’em, THREE, guitarists – one of whom impressively fingerpicked the entire set on his Strat – Virus built up a tapestry of sound, interlinking waves of abstract guitar shapes meeting with complex basslines and jazzy drum patterns to create their singular songs, with Eide’s commanding baritone as the cherry on the top of the strangely-composed cake.

‘Chromium Sun’ opened proceedings, followed by a rousing rendition of second album title-track ‘The Black Flux’. Only the titular track itself was aired from debut album ‘Carheart’, but I wasn’t complaining as, to be honest, it’s my least favourite of theirs. I managed to catch a killer version of ‘The Agent That Shapes The Desert’ before racing from the venue and scooting across to the tiny Stage01, AKA The Bat Cave, located high in the rafters of the 013, in vain hope of catching the rather wonderful Year Of The Goat…alas, it was not to be, as the room was jam-packed and spilling out into the adjoining corridor. This was to be my only attempt at gaining entry to the littlest room this year as I’d been disappointed the previous year and THIS year there seemed to be even MORE bodies milling around, so the chances of making it in for anything without serious forward planning were pretty damn slim, sadly.

Back over at Het Patronaat, Swans mainman Michael Gira was playing to a room full of, well, to put it bluntly, chatty ingrates. Despite prefacing his solo acoustic set with a request for people not to film him on iPhones, and being a well-known admonisher of people talking over his sets, still I could see iPhones being pointed in his direction and an ever-growing chatter soon spread from the back of the hall until it felt very much like only around twenty or thirty people were actually paying attention to the man. Their loss, ultimately, as Gira was as captivating and entrancing as ever, steel grey hair slicked back, white shirt, braces and ever-present stetson perched behind him atop his amp.

Roadburn 2012 - Michael Gira by Paul Robertson

Gira has a talent for making a simple acoustic guitar sound like the monolithic caving in of a thousand primal skies as he claws and bashes at it, all the while declaiming his brutalist, stark poetry in that strident voice as though in ecstatic trance.

Opening with a stripped-down version of Swans’ ‘Eden Prison’, Gira was on as fine a form as ever I’ve seen him, not letting the ever-increasing mumble of the rabble put him off his stride, despite occasional interjections between songs for them to shut up. Beautifully hewn, primal takes on Gira’s own ‘Oxygen’, Swans ‘She Lives’ Angels of Light’s ‘Promise Of Water’ were delivered and lapped up by those actually paying attention, along with one or two newer numbers – presumably from the forthcoming Swans The Seer album – before Gira asked everyone who was interested in hearing to step closer, delivering a crushing finale of ‘God Damn The Sun’ to the twenty or so genuine listeners in the room. Gira conquered, despite the adverse conditions.

Now, next up were the band that I was most excited about seeing – aside from the mighty Voivod, natch – Hammers Of Misfortune, and I’m happy to report that they more than fufilled their mandate to knock my goddamn socks off.

Roadburn 2012 - Hammers Of Misfortune

Focussing mainly on playing songs from their latest, and possibly greatest (?), record 17th Street, the six-piece band smashed through an hour’s worth of finely wrought Fancy Metal, dripping with harmonies from guitarists John Cobbett and Leila Abdul-rauf and a commanding stage-presence from lanky vocalist Joe Hutton. Cobbett himself impressed me much as he did last year, when I saw him with the now sadly-disbanded Ludicra,with his tasteful, electrifying leads and those riffs and harmonies. Sure, Sigrid Sheie’s keys got a little lost in the mix, but on the whole the band sounded absolutely bang-on.

’17th Street’ itself sounded superb, and the ridiculously anthemic ‘The Grain‘ was an absolute stormer – clearly being the favourite track of a fair few people in the room. My notes, alas, don’t give a full breakdown of the set as I was too busy nodding along ferociously and generally digging the shit out of this long-awaited set, but I do remember they played a track off of their debut album The Bastard at one point, although which one, I cannot say. They were bloody good though.

The fact that Hammers Of Misfortune had been so good did a lot to take the bitter sting out of not being able to see La Otracina, who were playing at the same time but in the tiny ‘Stage 01’ room upstairs. This was the first of several clashes for me, but then, that’s the nature of the beast at this kind of event, right?

I was having mixed feelings about seeing Killing Joke, if I’m honest. I cannot stand their latest album, and I was quite concerned that the lack of power and rawness that they had regained for Absolute Dissent but totally misplaced on MMXII would be reflected in their live show…but, having seen the band live some seven or eight times over the years, there was a part of me that felt they would pull it off with aplomb, based on past experience.

Roadburn 2012 - Killing Joke

As it turned out, my initial worries were bang on the money. Coming on to the massively underwhelming strains of ‘European Superstate’ – the least interesting track from Absolute Dissent and clearly the blueprint for much of the new material – it was clear to me by the overwhelming ‘acidic’ synths and Jas’ incredibly flat vocals that this was not going to be a good show. By second track ‘Sun Goes Down’ it seemed painfully obvious to me that the only people who wanted to be in the room less than I did were the band themselves. Jaz appeared to be having vocal troubles, and guitarist Geordie looked flat-out disinterested; so much so that at one point he leaned against the speaker next to him, one foot resting against it, staring into space whilst perfunctorily strumming along. This did not look ‘cool’, it looked rude.

He had a roadie standing virtually right next to him on stage for the whole time I was watching, something that, to me, just looked prima-donna-ish and unprofessional since he served no apparent purpose.

I can’t even remember what the third song of the set was as at that point I decided I’d had enough of watching a once-great band make asses of themselves and treat their audience with thinly-veiled contempt, so I slunk out of the room and headed over to Het Patronaat, where I quite frankly should have been all along, to watch Ancestors.

Having left relatively early in Killing Joke’s set, I didn’t witness the ensuing hoo-hah that went down between Geordie, his roadie and an audience member, resulting in Geordie being removed from the venue after the set, but it looked to me like he was in a foul mood from before he even set foot on stage, so what happened in no way surprised me. Saddened, yes, but surprised? No.

Anyway, coming into Ancestors set about halfway through, I was nearly pinned to the wall at the back of the hall by the bright light and sheer mass of sound coming off of the stage. With a series of beautiful film images playing behind them, Ancestors slow-burning melodic-yet-ever-so-heavy drone throbbed and pulsed like a living thing.

I’d greatly enjoyed their Of Sound Mind LP, not been overly enamoured of their Invisible White EP and not yet heard their latest LP, In Dreams And Time, but after having seen them fill Het Patronaat with their organ-and-guitar-fuelled progressive drone fit to bursting, you can be damn sure I went scuttling out and picked up a copy of said latest release as soon as I got home. Impressive indeed.

Now we get to a set that seems to be one that has proved highly divisive, garnering much ‘…meh’ from those present, and about which I seem to be the only person with anything positive to say – Ulver, paying tribute to their favourite mod/psych numbers of the sixties.

Roadburn 2012 - Ulver

I found it odd that people were surprised about this set, as when one considers exactly how wilful and eclectic Ulver are – and have been since before they fully abandoned their ‘Black Metal’ roots some fourteen or so years ago – a move such as this would hardly seem ‘out of character’ for them.It would seem that people are just as happy to paint Ulver into their little ‘Dark Ambient’ niche as they were to label them ‘Black Metal’ when they patently were not….well, not physically anyhow.

So it was that Kristoffer ‘Garm’ Rygg and his band of merry men – including Daniel O’Sullivan of Æthenor, Mothlite, Guapo and Miasma, and long-time collaborator Tore Ylwizaker, amongst other, more unfamiliar, faces onstage – backed by some very ‘Mod’-like, trippy, swirly back projections – all primary colours and subliminal bullseyes – opened with a raunchy version of The Pretty Things’ ‘Bracelets Of Fingers’, swiftly followed by The Chocolate Watch Band’s ‘In The Past’, Garm belting out the vocals and shaking some kind of percussive bouquet of rattles as the rest of the band pumped out a muscular R’n’B-influenced groove sprinkled liberally with psychedelia.

I suspect what it was that flummoxed people so much was exactly how ‘straight’ the band played these tunes. There were no glacial reworkings and relatively little electronica, just a band cranking out versions of obscure sixties tunes that they clearly dig very much. Thankfully, my tolerance level for that kind of thing is pretty high, so I didn’t get up in arms about it, unlike some.

In their allotted hour and twenty minutes, Ulver delivered a fair few nuggets by bands well-known – ‘Today’ by Jefferson Airplane, ‘Street Song’ by the 13th Floor Elevators, ’66 5-4-3-2-1′ by The Troggs and set closer, the classic, ‘I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night’ by The Electric Prunes – and the pretty darned obscure – ‘Velvet Sunset’ by The Music Emporium, ‘Thunder’ by The Common People, ‘Can You Travel In The Dark Alone?’ by Gandalf and pretty, twinkling encore ‘Magic Hollow’ by The Beau Brummels – but delivered them all in playful, light-hearted style. For tonight, Ulver were not the dark, mysterious shadowy figures of old, but a bunch of musicians having a good time in front of a crowd who clearly were not willing to accept them as such…..more fool them.

In fact the only real criticism I have is that they really shouldn’t have bothered with their slightly tedious, unfocussed freak-out-style ‘jam’ encore, as it very quickly outstayed its welcome. Hell, the bassist was seen to be wandering around onstage, unsure of what to do with himself – surely a sign that you should wind it up, right?

Yes it was light and, in the scheme of things, relatively inconsequential, but, you know, it was fun for both audience and performers, and who can begrudge the band a li’l fun?

The best was, of course, saved ’til last as this year’s curators Voivod took the position of final band on the opening night of Roadburn 2012. Having been quite the surprise event of last year for many, these Canadian dark horses returned to win over anyone who didn’t see them last year and to please those of us who were pretty much mainly there just to see them this year anyway. Don’t get me wrong, my Roadburn experience of last year as a whole was what tempted me to come back again this year, but it was the knowledge that the men from Morgoth were returning that effectively sealed the deal for me.

Roadburn 2012 - Voivod

Playing a set that was effectively the same set as their main stage set of last year, but with one or two tweaks and surprises, in many ways this was ‘just another’ Voivod set for old hands such as myself. However, even ‘just another’ Voivod set is a treat on any night and I lapped it up as though it was the first time I’d seen them, instead of the ninth.

Opening with The Prow, pretty much the sole number left in their set these days from the criminally underrated Angel Rat album, Denis ‘Snake’ Belanger and the boys were clearly ‘all engines go’ with drummer Michel ‘Away’ Langevin grinning that sleepy Cheshire cat smile of his perched behind his kit thundering away (no pun intended) and Jean-Yves ‘Blacky’ Theriault grinding out that blower bass as though his life depended on it.  Mention must be made of the ‘new boy’, Dan ‘Chewy’ Mongrain, on guitar and filling some particularly hefty boots – having been with the band for some four years now, following their decision to carry on after the devastating loss of original guitarist Denis ‘Piggy’ D’Amour, he has very noticeably began to stamp his own mark on the music he’s playing, most noticeably in the way his rendering of Piggy’s solos has taken on a much more fluid feel, reflecting his own love of jazz playing styles.

Yes indeed, Chewy is a great asset to Voivod, and his talent, skill and enthusiasm have clearly reinvigorated the rest of the band greatly.

Roadburn 2012 - Voivod

As with last year a brand new song from their as-yet-untitled forthcoming new record – their first without Piggy’s guitars – was aired for the very first time, auguring well for its eventual release. Entitled ‘Target Earth’, it was a harkening back to the paranoid, nervous, jittery discord of the Killing Technology and Dimension Hatröss days – a very welcome thing indeed for most fans of the band – and, when combined with the track aired last year, ‘Kaleidos’, made many a Voivodian mouth a-slaver in anticipation for that forthcoming album.

The other ‘surprise’ of the evening was an airing of the band’s cover of the Die Kreuzen classic ‘Man In The Trees’, a track which originally appeared on Lean Into It, a Die Kreuzen tribute album that I’m not entirely sure many people ever heard.

Voivod’s version was a relatively straight take on the tune – the original DK version of which appeared on their 1986 second album, October File – and a very fine tribute indeed to the band whose guitar sound and angular riffing had such a great effect on Piggy. It has been said that without the catalyst of Brian Egeness’ guitar, Voivod wouldn’t have evolved in quite the same way that they did. Who knows, but I DO know that I love Voivod, I love Die Kreuzen and I love to hear Voivod playing Die Kreuzen!

Tonight, however, was not the last time we would hear this li’l ditty played on this stage during Roadburn, oh no……there was more to come soon.

So, as it was, Voivod delivered a set full of classic Voivod ‘standards’ – ‘Voivod’ , ‘Ripping Headaches’,‘Nothingface’, the ‘first-attempted-last-year-but-now-a-firm-favourite’ Eric Forrest-era bruiser ‘Forlorn’, and a version of Killing Technology ripper ‘Overreaction’ that was pre-empted by an amusing mime of Blacky starting and faltering on his bass opening run and having to be ‘hand-cranked’ by Snake as though he were a wind-up machine. Well, I laughed, anyway. Also amusing, perhaps only to me, is Snake’s ‘surfing’ mime during the distinctly surf-rock moments of Infini track, and band favourite, ‘Global Warning’.

Closing, as is now the custom, with their version of Pink Floyd’s ‘Astronomy Domine’ – always delivered as a tribute to Piggy – Voivod bid the 013 farewell until the next night when they would return to open a portal to another dimension, taking us all with them this time and I, for one, could not bloody wait.

Read Day 2,3 & The Afterburner review HERE.

Scribed by: Paul Robertson
Photos by: Lee Edwards